ebay, the delaneys’ rainbow connection, and a 13-year-old’s attempt to reverse time

On a rainy spring day some time in the last millennium, I stepped awkwardly across the threshold of a rambling farmhouse in Winchester, Virginia with my mother and sister dubious and in tow. The cluster of friendly, laughing college-age girls in the entryway confirmed the suspicion that had sunk its fangs into me the moment I had successfully convinced my mother to drive us out to see these strangers for their Ponypalooza: I did not belong here.

This was true, but for the opposite reason that normally plagued this particular hobby of mine: for once, I was too young. Usually the issue was that I was too old. Too old to have any interest in collecting, cataloging and taking care of toys that were developed for little children—a category which I miserably did not fit into at thirteen, just like I miserably did not fit into any clothes outside of flannel shirts and cargo pants.

Not that the judgement came from my parents. My father still collected the toy trains of his childhood, so there was no argument there. If anything he might have found my rediscovered fervor for the toys of my extreme youth far more affordable (and therefore desirable) than his own collecting hobby. And my mother didn’t cast aspersions on it either, though I think this came more from a sympathy for the shittiness of being 13 than out of any fellow collectors’ impulse. Had she been alive to see the Mari Kondo craze catch on, she would have approved—even though she spent her life surrounded by people who treasured their junk, she very much would have loved to be rid of it. But she didn’t question the ponies. Maybe because she saw the closeness they brought me and my drifting-toward-boys best friend? Maybe because it was the happiest I’d been since we moved to this part of the country I neither liked nor fit into? I don’t know. But as long as we earned the money ourselves, she’d patiently sit through the ebay bid-placing process on whatever lot of ponies we’d carefully researched, swooned over and set our hearts on. For months.

Outside of my immediate family the late nineties were less forgiving of a 13yo rediscovering the toys of her four-to-six-year-old self. Vintage wasn’t yet cool. Those flannel shirts and cargo pants? Moving past those into spaghetti straps and short shorts were what you were supposed to be aspiring toward. My aunt, who had four gen-xer children of her own, could make neither heads nor tails of my elder millennial self. Why wasn’t I trying to do anything with my hair? Why didn’t I like any music that had lyrics? Why wasn’t I a recognizable brand of uncool? I flinch still at the memory of the ecstatics I went into when I found a battered So-Soft Magic Star in a yard sale near her house, when my aunt had gone to such trouble to secure an elusive Princess Diana beanie baby for my birthday. That was a rare occasion when my mother pointed out that I ought to’ve shown something akin to that level of delight for this unlooked-for gift, and I will never live it down. I didn’t mean to hurt my aunt’s feelings, just…she was able to acquire that rare thing through networking. I acquired my rare thing through the hunt.

And it was a hunt! Ebay had just come into existence. There was no “buy now” option; you had to watch the auctions you had bids on like a hawk, and you had to be ready to pounce in the final seconds with a raise if someone one-upped you. You had to have reliable internet to make that kind of move–which meant kicking everyone else off the phone so your modem could connect and snag you your ponies in the eleventh hour. I didn’t come by this predatory collecting through my own investigations–the aforementioned best friend turned me on to it, when our summer afternoon reminiscing about childhood toys turned from research on the now sadly defunct Dream Valley (for a similar if not quite as Geocities experience, Ponyland Press appears to be similar in scope, if not as deep in its image pockets) to an actual search. While I was content to spend every weekend cruising the local yard sales on a quest for people’s childhoods put up for sale, Olga took the proactive step of actually seeking ponies out online. And thus our pony habit was born.

To be clear, there was, in fact, a My Little Pony collecting “scene”: and we were not it. In the late 90s, most of the people selling ponies were either parents purging their homes of their college-age kids’ crap, or those same college age kids selling the crap themselves online, to try and make a little pocket money. Most of the people buying the ponies were college-age, too: now making enough money of their own, they wanted to reclaim a bit of their childhoods, it seemed, and they were just that much more well off than us 13-year-olds to be able to afford it.

Blogs were on the horizon but hadn’t yet taken off, so most discussion happened on forums–most memorably, the My Little Pony Trading Post, lovingly and universally shortened to MLPTP. This, some googling assures me, is paradoxically still around, though noticeably less rainbow-on-black in its color scheme nowadays. Mostly we just stuck to the buy and sell pages, but if you wanted to wade into the forums for drama, there was plenty to be found. There was the intense–and I mean intense–schism over Hasbro’s late 90s attempt to resurrect the My Little Pony brand, with new, noticeably skinnier shapes for its ponies. Said shapes led ultimately to boards which expressly banned discussion on the ponies deemed by no small number of die-hard 80s MLP fans as “My Little Anorexic Horses.” (Hasbro’s recent and much more successful resurrection, of the Friendship is Magic variety, is a compromise between the chunky 1980s pony shape and the svelte, more flutter pony-esque failure of the late 90s–but this probably owes more to the anime style of the Friendship Is Magic tv show than to any desire to pacify 80s pony nerds from twenty years ago.)

And then there was the fanfiction. I distinctly remember the first piece of I-guess-technically-fanfiction I ever read: an incredibly long tale of the writer’s Baby Surprise going under her bed and into a magical land through some kind of portal, on a quest for her lost fellow toys after her owner had left for college. If this sounds pretty Toy Story 3 to you, just remember this lonely college girl wrote it in 1997 some 13 years prior. The writing was okay, but what struck me at the time was how this chemistry major missed her home and her childhood and her way back to it was writing this story in between cramming for exams and, I don’t know, setting things on fire or whatever you do as a chemistry major. I didn’t know anyone else who wrote stories to feel better about anything. She received such positive feedback on it that she bought herself another Baby Surprise on the My Little Pony Trading Post, to replace the one she had (contradictory to the star of her story) in fact lost.

I did not in fact write any pony fanfiction. Not that I can remember, anyway. But perusing the writing of all these women who were doing it not to make a career out of it but because it brought them closer to something they loved and missed–someone they loved and missed having been–certainly primed me for full-on fandom when Lord of the Rings and Web 2.0 coincided years later. It also honed my ability to fake an acute cultural identity which I lacked–namely that of someone roughly ten years older than I was.

Which brings us back to the Delaneys. Though referenced chiefly as a unit, “the Delaneys” were primarily a husband and wife team: the husband curated the pony collection at home (and added the vanity lighting to all the pony cabinets) while the wife hunted down huge pony collections online and then resold the extras on MLPTP. Since their collection was massive, and included scads of rare finds like all twelve of the birth month flower ponies obtained by mailing away Kellogg cereal box tops, or UK and French variants of ponies unobtainable in the US, this meant there were a lot of extras. The Delaneys were also extremely well-known as reliable and friendly in their transactions, so they were some of the few people I bought ponies from outside of eBay itself.

At some point, driven by I don’t know what impulse, they decided to invite the pony-collecting internet to their house. (Gee, can you tell the internet was still in its infancy?) And they did. And they called it Ponypalooza. Internet strangers drove up from all over to see the famed pony collection, and to buy and sell ponies, essentially in these people’s kitchen and living room. The Delaneys had a bunch of very small children, who ranged about the house tired or cranky like very small children do, utterly unmoved by their parents’ ponies and more than a little put out by this mass of strangers milling through their home.

And that’s…basically all we did. Mill around. There may have been some events planned but it was raining and that left a great deal of people crammed into this old farmhouse full of ponies oh and also the whole family trying to live there. Most of the sellers had only rare ponies on offer, and only for exorbitant prices I could in no way afford, but there was one girl selling manes and tails and banged-up versions of ponies, ideally for trying one’s artistic skills at designing a new pony and obliterating the previous one. That seemed like sacrilege to me (and also I lacked the skills), but I took pity on a tail-less Bowtie from 1983–from before I was even born–and bought both her and a replacement tail for her. I took her to college with me; she’s currently somewhere in my garage, separated from the rest of my collection by my pity.

The rest of my collection is currently being mauled by my two-year old. They are bright and plentiful and he loves them–especially the Apple Delight family set given to me by Olga one birthday; she was always way more on top of eBay and way more ready to trust MLPTP randos than I was. (Also, she had more money.)

To even find that image (as well as to check their names; it has been awhile since I had the whole MLP catalog memorized) I had to do some sleuthing that revealed that the Apple Delight father alone is worth $45. The same Apple Delight father my son bellows “daddddddd!” at before joyfully smashing his hooves across the nearest hard surface. And that doesn’t make me wince, honestly. They were toys and designed to be played with; my heart always melted for the ponies with scuff marks and chopped manes that bespoke years of loving play. Whereas Olga pursued mint condition ponies and, like the Delaneys, wanted them kept pristine. She didn’t have cabinets with vanity lighting for them, but only because she wanted a boyfriend and she feared that the ponies, if discovered, would throw a wrench in that endeavor.

But I also don’t wince because, as an actual member of the target demographic of Hasbro’s late-80s early-90s ponies, I only ever owned 16 of them. When I was thirteen that number ballooned to 147, as I compiled histories of the brand, traced the diaspora of ponies across the pond, and trawled through sales virtual and in person for pieces of other people’s pasts to claim as my own. I wanted so much to be one of these college girls capable both of moving their lives forward in whatever they were studying at school, but also of embracing the childhood they missed, and which I had so recently lost.

Being 13 sucks. You’re either too old or too young for everyone you want to be, to yourself and to everyone else.

But, as a no-longer-13-year-old, I don’t need the ponies anymore. I don’t need to try and turn back time. They can be my son’s now. They light him up more than they ever could me. I like watching him line them up and, well, knock them down. He can have them.

Except maybe for Bowtie. When I find her, she’s going on a shelf somewhere safe. Not because she’s valuable–Bowties are a dime a dozen; the Caterpies of the 1980s pony world. But because I plucked her from that reject pony bin and she deserves to sit out her retirement with tail intact. Loved. And repaired, but left as who she was. Because who she was was enough.

manufactured heroism

Let’s take a moment not to reflect upon the agony of a concussion and how much it fucks up your plans (not to mention your face), and focus instead on the awesomeness of Lorne Balfe’s soundtrack for Assassin’s Creed III.

Understand that this is not a new game. It’s nine years old. And the soundtrack reflects that. There are strong elements of John Powell’s Jason Bourne scores and Philip Glass’s Illusionist soundtrack, both of which…I love.

It’s not just repetitive bass and heartbeat strings through. Check out the song that plays during a, well, fight club scene:

This is awesome. Once could wish it went on for three times as long. I’m the first to admit I’m an easy target for fiddles and hand drums, but even so, this is great. And a welcome reprieve from some of the game’s heavier themes, like this:

Even this, though, I love. And that troubles me. Because AC3 isn’t some indie title with an underground friend of a dev’s friend concocting a soundtrack. They build and hire to appeal to the largest number of people possible (though arguably slightly less so, now, with some of gaming’s more odious elements swearing off them due to Ubisoft’s by no means flawless willingness to portray women and minorities as creatures capable of more than being stepped on). The heartstrings these chords pull are easy to calculate and commodify, and people do. Often.

Remember the Trump video they put together to tout his “triumphant” return to the White House after he recovered from Covid? My insides curdled during that video, and not just for the ridiculous and damaging messaging. It was that soundtrack. Twitter quickly pounced on it as having been sourced from some sound house as ludicrous as “Music for Heroic Men” or something like that. But it could have come from any of the random orchestral playlists I listen to—from Cinematic Orchestra to Audiomachine. Generic “heroic” crap. And it’s crap I love.

I felt the same way when I ran the Marine Corps Marathon, where they played the Halo and Fallout 3 soundtracks as helicopters flew over to start the race. What the fuck, guys? Delusions of heroism concocted by these games—the romance of militarism—is how you got some of these kids to sign up and go get their heads (or bodies) fucked with, forever. Some of them died. Their friends are limping through this race with their images screen printed on their shirts. And you’re milking that same musical source to stoke the fires for the same shit at home? Enabling these fantasies to serve your own ends?

And I like that music! Less so now that I have a kid—I just want him to thrive; I don’t have the stomach for envisioning myself as someone heroic anymore—but certainly I used to crave music like that when running. To feel like a hero, or like anyone cared about the amount of effort I was putting in.

And that’s exactly what these songs do. As advertised. But I hate being so easily manipulated. Not that my musical tastes should be so edgy as to render me out of reach by cheap marketing tactics—I was never in the running for music hipsterdom—but just the fact that…I don’t know, that self-respect is such a Pavlovian response to a couple cellos and a drum kit. That’s kind of disgusting. No one should be that malleable.

It is, I guess, stupid and naive to resent the use of art to serve ends either business or military (which is itself a business). “But I liked it!” is probably one of the dumber reactions one can conjure up to this scenario. I’m not saying there are deep thoughts happening here. I have a concussion; I guarantee you these thoughts aren’t deep. Bitter, though, maybe. Burned. In a self-owning kind of way.

pinball

You know how in classic, physical pinball you can sling that ball up there and get next to no points but it just keeps bouncing around, your last ball, taking forever to bang clang wobble its way down the chute (over whose paddles you have by now lost control) to failure?

Yeah. That’s the country amidst this Covid spike now.

I’ve been knitting, of all things. I haven’t been this into it since I learned off YouTube in 2006. I don’t have the patience or interest to follow trends or Ravelry divas and in all likelihood I’m going to injure myself again doing it this much. But I’m just so done.* Like everyone else, I know. Except I’m still social distancing and wearing a fucking mask, unlike so many people around me who “just had” to book that flight to Arizona for “spring break” even though you’re 40 years old, for godsake. Uh huh. Tell it to your mom whom your carelessness puts in the hospital.

Anytime I find something enjoyable amid this eternal wave of bullshit but I think back to Obama excoriating us for binge-watching and escapism. Shortly after Trump won. And that’s justified. I don’t have an excuse that holds up. At least I’m supporting small local economies, I guess. Indie dyers. Small yarn shops.

But I’m not saving the world, I know. The world seems very determined not to be saved.

* not, obviously, that my fatigue is on par with those who’ve had to watch people who look like them get killed over and over, while media personalities tut tut until the next one

team rivs

Man, every time I read one of steph_outside’s posts I am wrecked. And that’s real. Admissible to say. And on the heels of that comes, unbidden, the less admissible wheedling, mewling hope that if I ache enough for other people’s tragedy I can dodge it myself. Which is so not the calculus of life. As she points out herself, she has already been down this road. Twice. And the losses just keep coming.

Anyway, here’s the link to Rivs’ GoFundMe, because he’s got a 90% chance of relapse. And his youngest daughter drew a stick figure for school of herself wearing this hat and saying “my hat is cool because it is for my dad and has his name on it.” She is, I think, six.

valhalla nights

I admit I’ve been absent from Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. I was seduced by the siren song of Valheim and besides, I didn’t want to go on another damn dream sequence trip. But news of the upcoming Ireland DLC brought me back because, lore-wise:

In the interim, they’ve added spring equinox Ostara content, which means all the flowers, paper lanterns and fireflies that I want to see in my actual life but for which it is, predictably, too damn cold. It will be too cold for *checks watch* months.

So here you go.

okay this one isn’t springtime but look at the sunlight on the water in those wagon ruts

where there is no path

I’ve run five marathons. But between pregnancy, post-pregnancy (health things; not my choice) and Covid, I haven’t run much at all in years. (Indoor) cycling? Sure. HIIT? Yep. Weights, yoga, etc etc. But no running.

I started again, though, to join Nicole Meline’s Trailblazer race. A half marathon is pretty much my favorite length. Long enough to enjoy yourself without needing the distraction of, hopefully, cheerful crowds to spur you on. My favorite way to run is alone but my favorite way to race is definitely surrounded by people. The beautiful rural races I’ve done have been far too lonely. The otter I startled from his sunning perch did not cheer for me. I prefer the cheers to the views.

I’ve done a virtual bike race before, stationary, but not one afoot tracked on a GPS wearable. I can in theory go anywhere…though this is still a pandemic so I’ll likely choose somewhere far lonelier than I would usually prefer.

Anyway, in her efforts to drum up interest, Meline described why she loved running in her podcast: “it gets you to the point where the tank is empty, and you have to change the story that you’re living in.” And I liked that. Not that you have to turn into a swan from an ugly duckling, or a butterfly from a caterpillar—all of those timeworn nature metaphors are predestined by biology. The narrative nature of long(er) distance running, the writing you are doing inside your head to keep your feet under you and moving forward, is less certain. Less preordained. It necessitates more artfulness to see it through. Because on some level, at some time, you need to tell yourself you can do a thing various parts of your body are telling you you can’t. And to have those promises to yourself come true is a rare and vanishing kind of magic.

Running is also, I’ve been reminded, how I come to know the area around me. How I map it—where there are mocking teenagers, excitable dogs, people who wave back. We’ve lived here half a year but we know no one. And, honestly, we still don’t. But I know what blank plant-watering faces will give way to a grin if I trot past and say hello, carefully distant so as not to give rise to visions of waves of sickness rolling off me. I know what hills give the best views after a storm. Or during a storm. Or right before one hits. The smells of rain, the bottomed-out roads whose edges should be avoided if it has been below freezing and might still contain black ice; all of these are observations I’m not generally making if I’m out with my dogs or my son or my husband. My attention tends to be toward them, in those situations.

But alone, running—especially running hyper-conscious of the chance of injury, since the damage from last time is permanent—I take the time to map the world around me. The last places we’ve lived I still know by the skies and the scents and the ways houses and copses of trees change with the seasons. Now, though my second toenails are already blackening and falling off, I am beginning to map this place, too. And it’s a tiny braid of a normal, recognizable, doable thing, in a fabric otherwise rent by the last year.

road noise

when we moved here

you could not hear the hum

of the highway tracing the land like a vein.

we bought the place in a rush

in a time when a cough made you flinch,

move away,

reflexively clear your throat,

your body warding off death with fear.

the roads were empty.

now that we live here

it sounds some nights like

every road trip as a child rolled up into one:

the high drone of semis

hurtling through the darkness

woven in with the frantic spinning wheels

of smaller cars,

families coalescing

or cracking apart at the seams

like quilts pulled too tight against the cold.

I want to resent it

the road noise—why doesn’t anyone build soundproof here?—

but I am softened

every time

by the memories of predawn highways

the glass cool against my forehead as

I stare up into the sky trying to will constellations I do not know into shape,

my parents whole and uncharted,

north stars in the front seats steering us toward wonder

haunted

Between this and Alice Munro’s “Dimensions,” which I read at random when my 18mo carried Too Much Happiness over and demanded I read it to him (he soon wandered off to play with trains, and as the story grew darker my voice got quieter, until I just scooped him up and hugged him), my nightmares bristle with threats, and if my son isn’t in my peripheral vision I feel like a horse in blinders must feel when he hears a hissing.

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“my head’s ringing from the love of the stars”

Well, this song slays me.

Here are the lyrics:

It’s coming to pass
My country’s coming apart
The whole thing’s becoming
Such a bumbling farce

Was that a pivotal historical moment
We just went stumbling past?
Here we are
Dancing in the rumbling dark
So come a little closer
Give me something to grasp
Give me your beautiful, crumbling heart

Another disaster
Catharsis
Another half-discarded mirage
Another mask slips

I face off with the physical
My head’s ringing from the love of the stars

There is too much pretence here
And too much depends on the fragile wages
And extortionate rents here

We’re working every dread day that is given us
Feeling like the person people meet
Really isn’t us
Like we’re going to buckle underneath the trouble
Like any minute now
The struggle’s going to finish us

And then we smile at all our friends

It’s hard
We got our heads down and our hackles up
Our back’s against the wall
I can feel you aching

None of this was written in stone
There is nothing we’re forbidden to know
And I can feel things changing

Even when I’m weak and I’m breaking
I’ll stand weeping at the train station
’Cause I can see your faces

There is so much peace to be found in people’s faces

I saw it roaring
I felt it clawing at my clothes like a grieving friend
It said

“There are no new beginnings
Until everybody sees that the old ways need to end”

But it’s hard to accept that we’re all one and the same flesh
Given the rampant divisions between oppressor and oppressed
But we are though

More empathy
Less greed
More respect

All I’ve got to say has already been said

I mean, you heard it from yourself
When you were lying in your bed and couldn’t sleep
Thinking couldn’t we be doing this
Differently?

I’m listening to every little whisper in the distance singing hymns
And I can
I can feel things
Changing

But it’s so hard
We got our heads down and our hackles up
Our back’s against the wall
I can feel your heart racing

None of this was written in stone
The current’s fast but the river moves slow
And I can feel things changing

Even when I’m weak and I’m breaking 
I stand weeping at the train station
’Cause I can see your faces
There is so much peace to be found in people’s faces

It’s not enough
To imagine we’ll be happy, when we’ve got enough stuff

All this stuff is blocking us

I’m neat with no chaser
I’m all spirit but I’m sinking

Beause the days are not days but strange symptoms

This age is our age
But our age is rage sinking to beige
And yes our children are brave
But their mission is vague

Now I don’t have the answers
But there are still things to say

I stare out at my city on another difficult day
And I scream inwardly
When will this change

I’m beginning to fade
But my sanity’s saved, ’cause I can see your faces
My sanity’s saved
’Cause I can see your faces

It’s hard
We got our heads down and our hackles up
Our back’s against the wall
I can feel your heart racing

None of this was written in stone
The current’s fast but the river moves slow
And I can feel things changing

Even when I’m weak and I’m breaking
I stand weeping at the train station
’Cause I can see your faces

I love people’s faces

valheim ho!

come at me, bro.

Like everyone else, I’m playing Valheim. Unlike many (but by no means all), I’m playing it alone. My go-to sandbox game buddy isn’t interested, and her husband’s friends, while willing, have an established all-male cohort I’m too tired to disrupt.

But, Valheim. It has the best kind of open world plot: the kind you can ignore. It has building. It has farming. It has taming animals, though there aren’t yet many different kinds of animals to tame. It has sunstars, weather, heaving seas and thick clouds of mist. It’s in alpha build still, and it has so far made the five Swedes who built it an estimated $28 million.

home sweet home
even the corpse runs are pretty

I don’t know why everyone is playing it (quarantine? snowed in?) and I don’t care. Alone, I have to solve problems differently than I would with a group or even my usual coterie of two, and the game’s sandboxy enough to allow it. No friends to help you shoot fire arrows at that summoned elder god? Dig a pit and line it with fire. Tired of getting charged by endless hordes of grey dwarves when you’re just trying to plant some carrots? Terraform a sweet earthwork and stick some sharpened stakes in there.

Valheim isn’t the most advanced sandbox out there. It certainly isn’t the most polished. But it’s huge and open and, though the weirdly WoW-ish, cartoony nature of your own character may be a turn off in the loading screen if, like me, you generally prefer a more agonized realism to your open-world visuals, it’s a good time.

Also there is fishing. Did I mention there is fishing? And BOATS. You can build DOCKS for your BOATS and go FISH from them. Truly we live in amazing times.