My Life in Collections: Jurassic Park Trading Cards, Age 12

Practicing adulthood through the things I collected during my childhood.

“…because you are not trying simply to complete a set of books or toys or Weetabix cards, you are trying to complete yourself, to get back to the whole person you were before, as a child, before the obstructions and compromises of adulthood got in the way. And yet, all you are really doing is accumulating a pile of crap, souvenirs of the futility of the quest.”
― Neil Perryman, Adventures with the Wife in Space: Living With Doctor Who

I own a lot of books, and I display them attractively and by category, but I don’t think of them as a collection, nor of myself as a book collector. I don’t think most book collectors would view me that way either; a proper book collector would prefer unread, unmarked first editions instead of broken-spine paperbacks. By the same token, if my family had two cars instead of none, I doubt we’d be compared to Jay Leno or Ralph Lauren, even if we had really cool one-of-a-kind custom-detailed cars. In order for a thing to be a collection instead of simply an interest or preference, it has to be largely useless — more shoes than a person could possibly wear, sheets of stamps that couldn’t (or wouldn’t) pay for letter delivery, matchbooks whose ability to ignite is incidental — but carefully curated.

By this definition, I currently have a teacup collection, because I live in a rowdy household and have hidden all my good dishes. (Perhaps it is exuberance and perhaps it is a lack of end tables or a dishwasher, but we have smashed at least 12 cups in the last four months.) By the same token, although I refer to my sock collection as my sock collection, since I wear them — and wear them out — they’re more of an affectation.

Enforced, deliberate purposelessness means that at its best, collecting is a participation in found art — a recognition that objects have meaning or beauty that goes beyond utility, which the collector illuminates through juxtaposition and context change. Simultaneously, at its worst, collection is a fetishization of surplus which sanctifies the owner’s purchasing power. (I can afford to buy a second toy and keep it in its package in a room screened from direct sunlight, whose square footage I have set aside for this purpose.)

Younger kids tend to fall on one side of this duality, the meaning-making side that says this rock is not part of the hill anymore, but part of my rock collection, and I know it’s a good rock because it fits just-so in my palm. Adults are more vulnerable to ridicule, including self-ridicule; and perhaps as a replacement for “mom said it’s ok,” we tend to look for external value clues — for instance, market values: suggested retail price, or what it’s selling for on eBay.

Appropriately, right as I entered adolescence, my final childhood collection was an attempt to express something about myself that I had trouble putting into words, using a vehicle that seemed like it might make sense to brand-authenticated, collector’s edition, per-screen-average adults.

Collection Four: Jurassic Park Trading Cards

Active: Ages 12–13. Discarded: Ages 14–16. Integrated into doll collection despite not being a doll: mint condition soap-foam-spitting Dilophosaurus.

When I was 12, I picked up a hand-me-down paperback of Jurassic Park. The movie was already in production, but my copy was old enough to not have a movie-logo cover; it was white with an embossed blue Tyrannosaur skeleton. I loved it in a way I have perhaps never loved another book.

I read it 13 times in the space of a few months—one of them out loud to my sister on a long car trip. (She got motion sick if she tried to read in the car.) In between, I read everything else I could find by Michael Crichton, none of which scratched the same itch. (Andromeda Strain was ok.) I made a nerdy, inside-joke-filled Jurassic Park board game which we played extensively. I found educational software to teach me the minutia of North American dinosaur finds, experimented with wearing all black like Ian Malcolm, and went to lectures by Robert Bakker, a paleontologist who pioneered the newly ascendant warm-blooded dinosaur theory.

I did not particularly want to be a paleontologist or paleobotanist. Digging in Montana sounded dusty, plus I’m prone to sunburn. Indoor, climate-controlled work: that was the ticket. Yet genetic engineering or computerizing transit infrastructure were the province of the bad guys? The obvious fantasy job was predicting near-future outcomes using complex math, but I didn’t think I was clever enough with numbers to pull it off. (Turns out it’s what I actually studied in college, but that’s later.)

The more fieldwork videos I watched and scientific papers I read, the plainer it was that scientists were neither absentminded nerds in lab coats, nor manic squeaky-voiced cheerleaders. Instead, they were like the scientist characters in the book. They were curious, observant, skeptical, innovative, and able to puzzle out patterns — or the absence of patterns. It was completely different from the dry version of the scientific method I’d learned it in elementary school, where you didn’t start an experiment unless you knew how it was going to come out.

Best of all, if the book was to be believed, it seemed scientific authority was granted through merit: Ellie the botanist was a respected colleague instead of somebody’s pretty girlfriend, even though she was pretty; when a little kid like Tim had a good idea it was respected as a good idea.

I doubted I’d ever get stuck on a malfunctioning dino-infested tropical island, but it did seem like I could angle myself toward an adulthood filled with people like that. In fact, now that I could see through their “casual Friday” camouflage, it was clear that many of the businesspeople and teachers I already palled around with were scientists and engineers, who had recognized me as one of their own much earlier than I had.

By coincidence, I’d picked an auspicious time to join the nerd ascendancy. The first issue of Wired hit newsstands that March, promising a forthcoming tech-enabled utopia. Almost simultaneously, CERN announced that the World Wide Web would be free, and the first web browser was released to the public. Geeks were chic; abruptly, my loner weirdo computer skills were impressive.

When the Jurassic Park movie premiered, it was accompanied by a deluge of tie-in products. These presented me with a conundrum. It’s not quite right to say the movie disappointed me. I loved the Velociraptors, even though I knew in my bones they were three times too big. (I’d towered over plenty of their skeletons.) Moreover, the score featured a prominent glockenspiel solo, which I was sure to get a crack at as first chair mallet percussionist of the W.E. Greiner middle school band.

However, while Spielberg has a lot of strengths as a director, his movies tend to be plot-driven instead of character-driven. Let me put it this way: does it seem to you that Indiana “it belongs in a museum” Jones behaves like an archaeology professor desperate to protect endangered antiquities? Characters in thrilling chase sequences don’t need coherent internal lives as long as the action is good. It only presents a problem if you’re a little girl whose emerging identity is deeply entwined with the motivations of the characters.

A quick and non-comprehensive rundown:

  • Book Hammond (park owner): Profit-obsessed corporate con man. Movie Hammond: Kindly grandpa who just wants everyone to have a good time.
  • Book Genarro (lawyer): Deeply concerned about the park’s legal exposure; the guy leading the investigation of island safety. Movie Genarro: greedy shyster stereotype killed early as a potty-humor punchline.
  • Book Grant: Non-grouchy volunteer kid chaperone who neither dates nor takes physical possession of his graduate assistant.

Hat tip to Laura Dern, who delivers a masterfully three-dimensional performance in spite of the fact that Ellie’s been turned into somebody’s girlfriend and softening influence.

To advertise and celebrate my allegiance to this thing that felt vital to me (in a way tweens can feel especially vital about things), my only options were objects tied to a movie which erased that thing. Still, those options were legion. I immediately set about amassing a set of Kenner action figures, the first series of which seemed to take its cues from Land of the Lost. Tim had a tiny pet Apatosaurus. Ellie had a Batman-style grappling hook. The dinosaurs had suspiciously male-looking mammalian gonad bulges and wonderfully tinny digital roars. My sister and I immediately recontextualized the toy raptor’s “grab attack” move as follows:

By my own definition, these action figures were not a collection: they were too useful, as evidenced by countless afternoons during which Tim, Ellie, and the Operatic Raptor adventured in the Sylvanian Families mansion and/or outer space. My Jurassic Park t-shirt got worn; my Jurassic Park tie-in McDonalds cup was drunk from. Obsessed, I may have been, but a collector I wasn’t.

The author (left), age 13, in an outfit similar to Tim’s movie costume, with her sister, age 9, in a glow-in-the-dark T-Rex shirt, at their joint birthday party which was NOT Jurassic Park themed; this is just how we dressed all the time.

To cross over into the realm of the truly nugatory, and thus reveal the depth of my commitment to fandom, I decided I ought to accumulate a complete set of Topps’ Jurassic Park trading cards. The cards were neither attractive nor informative. The best of them were perfunctory photo collages of awkwardly-cropped production stills tinted neon. The rest were screencaps with plot summary flavor text, or an uninspiring puzzle.

It was a spectacularly pointless pursuit, not least because the “trading” aspect was off the table; my friends were more interested in spending their disposable income on Cranberries CDs and green-apple-flavored Sour Punch straws. (To their credit, my friends were perfectly willing to run around in the woods with walkie talkies, battling fearsome imaginary predators — an innovation to our previous pastime, running around in the woods with bows and arrows, robbing the rich to give to the poor.)

This imbued the card collection with a fortunetelling aspect: either I was fated to find the cards I needed in the handful of packs I was able to purchase one and two at a time, or I wasn’t. It was up to the universe to provide cosmic acknowledgement that Jurassic Park and I were congruent.

In drips and drabs over the next few months, I carefully inserted each new numbered card into the plastic sleeves of a repurposed photo album, and gradually closed the gaps between one and 88. Except 56.

Damn you, card 56. I just looked it up on Amazon, and it’s a three-quarter medium closeup of a side-lit Velociraptor, with the caption “IT HUNGERS.” My life was better a few minutes ago, when I had no idea what the missing card looked like — when I had no idea that it was the very best card. It is an image of my very own soul staring back at me. I want it desperately.

However, back in 1993, I wisely concluded that once I was down to a single empty slot, the odds were too high that any mystery pack of eight-plus-a-sticker would contain nothing but repeats. Whimsical divinatory games aside, I’m not a gambler. I was out. And once I was out — once I had agreed to fail at my goal — there wasn’t any reason to hold onto the rest of the cards. I swapped the photo album back to being a photo album, and discarded most of the rest of my JP gear as it broke or I grew out of it.

I occasionally find a loose duplicate card tucked into an old paperback as a bookmark. Screaming raptor and stomping T-Rex are in a plastic bin in my parents’ garage; I pull them out on family holidays when I need to make a screamy, stompy point.

Economic Theses Explored:

Although I latched onto Crichton’s generally positive portrayal of applied science, Jurassic Park’s central theme is a much more sinister indictment of the ways scientific research gets distorted and co-opted by its funding sources. Grant is at the park because his scientific digs are largely funded by InGen, Hammond’s company, which means he has to show up when Hammond needs him — even though this is a bad time to step away from his scientifically-valuable fieldwork, which has to be completed before the rainy season. (At the end of the book, Costa Rican authorities detain him indefinitely. All those bones are going to wash away.)

Genarro, the lawyer, represents the investors, and wants to check out the park because he’s sure Hammond is hiding information about how dangerous it is — which Hammond has a long history of doing, which hasn’t deterred the investors because they still think they can make money. Malcolm comes along, despite his emphatic and consistent mathematical predictions that the park will fail catastrophically, because he’s paid a large consulting fee. He dies for it.

Almost every damaging or reactionary human decision in the book is about money. Why does power go down at the park? Because the sysadmin, Nedry, wants to steal and sell some embryos for lots of money. Why hadn’t somebody else looked at his computer code closely enough to notice the backdoor? Because it’s cheaper to hire one person. Hammond stocks the park with large, dangerous predators because they’ll attract more tourist revenue, cuts costs by using frog DNA to fill in genetic gaps, and never bothers to learn about the more toxic aspects of the “authentic” plants and animals he’s brought to life. He doesn’t find them interesting: they’re just profit sources. He dies for it.

Although Hammond and Nedry, the out-and-out villains, are maliciously greedy, Crichton’s matter-of-fact about the compromises even good-hearted people have to make. Money’s a corrupting influence, yes — enough so that people are willing to distrust their scientific conclusions in the hopes the guy with the bankroll is right. But money is also necessary in order to do just about anything, and it has to come from somewhere. In Hammond’s quest to build a lucrative luxury theme park, he’s funded a lot of research. If Grant doesn’t take his money, there’s no dig to be ruined. If Malcolm doesn’t play ball with the big-money companies making decisions, his ideas will never get heard.

It was the same with the movie: in order to make a film with a large cast and realistic on-location special effects, they needed a streamlined blockbuster story that could sell internationally. That means stock characters and quickly-grasped, low-detail scenarios. They needed additional revenue streams from tie-in merchandise, and they got a better return from slapping an already-designed logo on a tchotchke. However, the movie had artistry behind it, and so did a lot of the ancillary products, because the reason somebody made this movie and these products is because they loved a particular story. Art, like science, is commodified and responds to market pressures, but could not become influential, and in some cases could not exist, were it not for the funding flows provided by a market which doesn’t fundamentally find prehistoric plant toxicity compelling.

As an artist-scientist (a pairing so closely linked it’s a Jungian archetype), this was not a system I’d be able to escape. To make anything grand, I’d need to figure out how to commodify it — a mode of thought directly opposed to the observational, experimental, “see where this leads me and shut it down if it seems dangerous” approach that underpins good work. Most of adulthood would be a murky Devil’s bargain in which my purer artistic and scientific notions would have to bend to the whims of investors and patrons, because even though the scientific process gives precedence to the best idea, a good idea can only be realized if there’s a way to pay for the lab time — or film stock and lighting equipment.

On the plus side, compromise sometimes leads to magnificently delirious toy commercials.

Accuracy of Beliefs About Adulthood:

I was completely right about the economically-motivated compromises inherent to life as an art or science professional! Where I probably misstepped was in thinking this applied more to art and science than other professions. My friend Tasnim, who does a lot of high-level business consulting, estimates that in a best-case scenario, your average workday will be 80% crap you don’t want to do, in order to facilitate the 20% compelling stuff that’s the reason you’re there. That’s best case scenario. More often, it’s 5% good stuff. As a survival strategy, she recommends pretending the 80-plus-percent crap is an academic scholarship to learn a skill that might be useful later. But the more important thing is to realize 20% is an uncommonly good deal. You’re not going to get 100%. You’re not even going to get 50.

This jibes pretty well with my own work experience. I like it because it splits the difference between the idea that a good job is whatever somebody will pay you the most for (total Hammond and Nedry thinking) and the fiction that if follow your passion everything will work out. With all due respect to scientist-filmmaker Thomas Edison, success isn’t 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration; it’s 10% inspiration and 90% wooing investors, employers, customers, and distributors. Then you do the actual work during your off hours and get burned out; swear you’re going to switch professions so you don’t have to put yourself through this again; and remember you don’t really enjoy commodifying your skills, and finding a new job is the same process of wooing investors, employers, etc.

For me more specifically… I got a science degree. Then a film degree. You’ve never heard of my movies because they’re non-spectacular science fiction too character-driven to appeal to a wide audience. It’s cool. I keep the budgets ultralow so I don’t have to compromise on my female protagonists, who tend to annoy investor guys. If all goes according to plan (not that it ever does), we’re shooting the next one in October — a highbrow horror short called “Radiance,” about two women navigating their way through a monster-infested Parisian neighborhood. I’m sure the climactic standoff, a cat-and-mouse chase in a shotgun apartment, will be compared to Jurassic Park’s iconic kitchen sequence.

It doesn’t matter how we shoot our scene, or that my inspiration was French farce. You put two people and a monster in an enclosed space, and the bar has been set.

Perhaps more importantly, just before I wrote this piece, The Billfold’s own Mike Dang revealed that he too collected Jurassic Park cards — perhaps not obsessively, and almost certainly not for the reasons I did, but the point is: like minds find each other, especially if those minds write thousands upon thousands of words on the Internet. I like to think he has card 56. I like to think he keeps it in the pocket of his tuxedo.

What about you, Billfolders? Did you ever have a collection you abandoned before it was complete? Did it pave the way for your entire future profession? And more importantly: what’s your favorite dinosaur? Mine’s Deinonychus.