“Do you want to go to REI?” my mother asks me.
“No, thank you,” I say. It’s raining, it’s cold, it’s Michigan, I’m hungry, and more importantly, I don’t need anything from REI.
“Are you sure?” she asks again. “It’s right there.”
“I know, but I don’t need anything from REI. And besides, I live in a studio apartment now and I’d have to take anything with me on the plane. I’m loaded enough as it is. Do you need anything from REI?”
“Well I don’t know, we haven’t looked yet. Are you sure you don’t want to go? They might have some clearances.”
I am now at a loss for words. I’ve said no twice and explained why I’m not going to buy anything today. Saying no a third time will just make her angry. I have no idea why she won’t take no for an answer on a trip to a camping supply store, nor how her need to shop there can be dependent on what they have in stock (don’t you know beforehand whether you need something or not?). But mom is a woman who knows what she wants, and more importantly, she knows what you want. And if she wants you to want to go to REI, the easiest thing is to simply say “sure” and tag along, rather than precipitate a discussion about how you are an ungrateful son who needs to change his attitude, and by the way, all this new attitude is very worrying and you should probably move back to Detroit, because it’s a much healthier environment.
Sidenote: Detroit is not a healthy environment. It is, quite possibly, the most depressing spot on the planet that is not actively experiencing a genocide, hurricane, or occupation by US forces. The murder rate is slightly higher than the greater Baghdad metropolitan area, but without the warm weather and sunshine. It’s transportation infrastructure is significantly worse than Belgrade, which was bombed by Allied forces only fifteen years ago. It’s unemployment rate is on par with the Palestinian Territories, and its population is routinely rated the most obese, unfit, and generally unhealthy in the country. Smoking is still legal in bars and restaurants, and highly popular. The former mayor and his wife are being indicted from everything including using police resources to cover up an extra-marital affair, corruption, embezzlement and murder of a stripper. On the plus side, it’s home to the Detroit Red Wings.
“You know, if you’re really serious about being a writer, you need to reduce your living expenses. You know what would be cheap? Moving back home.” True, but moving to Detroit is something akin to reducing your living expenses to the point where you are not, in fact, living, but watching a lot of DVDs at your mother’s house and drinking too much coffee.
The lack of public transportation means that one can either be mobile, or one can drink, but one cannot do both, since the city lacks reliable cabs, bus service, or subway system. It’s a difficult concept to explain, but writers and artists require a few basic necessities to work. The first, and most important, is alcohol. The second is inspiration. Michigan is, of course, the fourth least-inspiring state in the nation, ranking only slightly behind Delaware, Ohio, and Oklahoma. Writers and artists may be born in these states, but they all move away as soon as humanly possible.
“And if you want to make money as a writer,” mom continues. “Do you know what you need to do?” Clearly not, since it’s something I’ve never been able to accomplish. “You need to write a children’s Christmas book about the Three Wise Men. In Spanish.”
I exaggerate a lot of things in my writing. Dialogue is never as witty as I report, oftentimes people never in fact say the words I attribute to them, and stories always work better in the first person whether they happened to you or somebody else. But I swear to God I am not making this up.
I’m not sure why mom thinks a Spanish language book about the Three Wise Men is such a significantly untapped market that it requires dropping all my other writing projects and begin work on it immediately despite being A) not Christian B) never having written a children’s book C) completely uninterested in the subject and D) congenitally incapable of writing a story that does not feature foul language, heavy drinking, robots, kung-fu and/or full frontal nudity. Personally, I’m starting to think a story about my mom’s wacky career advice would be a best seller if marketed in the humor section, but I bite my smart-ass tongue instead.
“That sounds interesting,” I offer, as neutrally and diplomatically as I can. I don’t go through reasons A through D, or try to explain that writers generally can’t successfully write stories they don’t give a damn about (“Quick! A story about twin albino orphans adopted by a strong-willed, single, middle-aged black woman from South Carolina in the 1970s.”), but I encourage her to write the story herself.
“I don’t have your creative side,” she explains. “Tell you what, we can collaborate.” I’ve never been able to collaborate effectively on a story, since my attitude toward writing is: “I know how to tell this story, and you don’t, so kindly fuck off until I need a suggestion to pull me out of my writer’s block.” I’d also hate for my mother to see my writing regimen, which requires copious amounts of either alcohol, onanism, or preferably both.
“The real key to success with children’s books is the illustrations,” she informs me, and on this we are in perfect agreement. My former roommate used to work at a small children’s book publisher, so I feel somewhat familiar with the market requirements, and from what I remember, pretty pictures are high on the list. I would think this would be an obvious reason why a collaboration between the two of us on a children’s book would be destined to fail, since neither of us can draw, but instead of pointing this out I tell her I’ll start taking art lessons immediately. “Don’t be silly,” she tells me. “You can just hire someone to do that.” Of course you can.
I saw Neil Gaiman at a book signing once. He said people were forever coming up to him with ideas for stories they had. “I’ve got the idea, you just write the words, and we’ll split the profits,” they’d say to him.
“As if the words were the easy part,” he laughed. He was able to laugh it off, but I suspect that is at least in part because none of the crazy people who wanted to collaborate with him were his mother.
All the career attention I’m receiving at home is a bit new to me, but then, I don’t think I’ve ever visited home while I was unemployed. I do my best to politely ignore the recommendations, or the umpteenth gentle prodding of “have you thought about going back to grad school? Maybe somewhere close to home?” I’m starting to think I’ve done something horribly wrong to warrant this much attention, that I must have completely fucked up my life for my mom to be this concerned about me. But she pulls me aside after my brother returns to New York.
“I’m worried about him,” she whispers to me confidentially. “He was drinking a lot while he was here.” I can’t imagine why. “I don’t think New York is a good place for him. I think he’s stagnating there.” My brother has a steady job at a company that isn’t going to fire him anytime soon. That alone puts him in the top one percent of the population.
“I think he’s doing fine,” I try to tell her, immediately feeling better about my own situation.
One of the exciting aspects about having newly divorced parents I’m learning is that you run into two sets of parental interference, instead of just one. So when I go to meet my dad for dinner, he has his own set of concerns.
“Son,” he asks. “Are you getting laid?”
I cough and try to change the subject.
“What about your brother? I don’t think he’s getting laid either, is he?” I dodge the question and promise to keep an eye out for him. What I actually do is instant message footage of my brother dressed up as Mr. Rogers from when he was five to his friends, a move I’m sure doesn’t improve his chances. But then, I reflect, Thanksgiving is about family, and not just about receiving career advice and concern about your sex life. Thanksgiving is also about rediscovering incriminating footage of your family and sending it around their circle of friends.
My mother parks her car as far away from REI as possible, not because the freezing rain makes for such a nice walk, but because she’s concerned about getting the sides of her car dinged. It’s only two years old, after all. This usually means parking further away from the entrance of a store than any driver would dream of doing. On the plus side, it makes it easier to find your way back. Just keep walking forever.
Inside the store, I try to interest myself in the displays of camping backpacks (I already own two), and base layers (more than I can count) while mom checks out the clearance rack. I realize she doesn’t need anything from here anymore than I do. She’s just looking for activities we can do together, and shopping is her default leisure activity.
On another day, she gamely asks me if I want to go to the bar, my default leisure activity in New York. I’m not sure how to tell her that yes, I do very much want to go to the bar, play a round of pool, or cricket, get blitzed and hit on loose women, but that I don’t want to do any of these things with my mother. My brain starts to conjure up the image of mother-as-wingman and my visual cortex, in a vain attempt to protect the rest of my brain from itself, shuts down completely, causing me to temporarily go blind.
“You should have seen this guy at the office basketball game last year,” imaginary-mom-as-wingman says to imaginary-female-bar-patron. “We’re all running ourselves ragged trying to keep within ten points of the team from Equifax, then he comes in off the bench and starts schooling these guys like he’s LeBron. Heh, guess we should’ve told them he played ball with the Wolverines, right? You know he’s shipping out to Afghanistan next week? What? He didn’t tell you? Man…just like the guy: quiet and mysterious.” In this sick fantasy my mother wears an eyepatch and is knocking back a Boddington’s.
I don’t remember holidays at home ever being this awkward. But there had always been more family around, then. With a girlfriend in tow and my father still at the house, a brother, a sister and whichever boyfriend she was with at the time, sitting around playing Boggle while watching football felt a lot more natural than my mother and I staring at each other across the table. The truth is, without some semblance of a family around, there isn’t a whole lot a thirty-year-old man and a sixty-year-old woman have in common. I’m not going to enjoy a trip to the apple orchard and she won’t have any fun seeing a band play at The Ark.
It’s my sister who finally hits upon the perfect activity for those few remaining members of the family, a game called Werewolf, which seems to be based on a sort of McCarthyite witch-hunt requiring players to choose someone to “die” every round in an attempt to eliminate the lone werewolf in a group of villagers. It’s a game that requires deceit, denial, subterfuge, accusations, counter-accusations and fake outrage. Everyone is a complete natural. And as the finger-pointing, drinking, and internecine feuds take us deep into the night, we realize we have finally found an activity the whole family can enjoy.
I had a chance to watch Our Town the other day while I was back in Detroit for Thanksgiving. I’ve always had something of a soft spot for the show, ever since being involved in a production back in high school. It’s a high school kind of show. Geriatric directors in small town America love putting it on: it’s part of the national theater canon, it’s got a love story, it’s a safe choice. No one ever protested Thorton Wilder. Try doing a high school production of Angels in America. Go ahead. We’ll wait while you get lynched.
I hadn’t seen the show in about fifteen years. Well, really since that high school production I’d done. So it was something of a sense of duty that I went to see it, not really expecting any revelations. You don’t watch It’s a Wonderful Life expecting to catch something new.
But, like many people rewatching the Jimmy Stewart classic for the first time since childhood, I was caught off-guard by how damned dark the story is. The first act, sure enough, is a nice sketch of life in a northern town. Aw, they’ve got umpteen churches. Aw, their idea of ethnic diversity is Polish immigrants. How twee.
All of this is just set-up, though, like a horror movie making us comfortable before the slasher jumps out of the shadows. Like any good horror movie, there are ominous clouds darkening an otherwise sunny day: that sweet paperboy with the bum leg who graduates top of his class at MIT? He gets vaporized by an artillery shell in World War I. “All that education for nothing,” the omniscient Stage Manager declares. There’s the tortured choir leader, who’s self-medicating whatever personal hell he’s going through by being the town drunk, a situation the choir ladies are sure will “end badly.”
Sure enough, the third act consists of a chorus of ghosts of characters from the first two acts. The alcoholic choir master has killed himself, that sweet young girl Emily, the play’s ingenue, has died in childbirth, and we watch her husband weeping alone at the grave of his young wife, while the ghosts look on dispassionately.
But the real whammy comes when Emily’s ghost tries to relive a day from her past, against the advice of her fellow ghosts. Watching her mother and father go through the banal minutiae of preparing breakfast, she breaks down. Why should such a meaningless family tableau hurt? Because, as the Stage Manager says, she knows how the story ends. She knows her brother dies on a camping trip at age twelve, knows how her father dies, knows that she, too, will die. Neil Gaiman once wrote that the trick to writing a happy ending was knowing when to stop telling the story, with “everyone lived happily ever after.” The problem with real life is we see things through to the end. And you and I know how every story ends, don’t we? Yup: everybody dies.
(Follow this link for the third act from the 1989 production at the Lincoln Center, with Spalding Gray as the narrator and Penelope Ann Miller as Emily.)
Wilder, much to his credit, gives us only a glimpse of happily-ever-after before propelling us into what happens next. And here comes the real moral of the play: not only are you going to die (sorry), but looking back over your life is going to hurt you. It’s going to cause you physical pain. You and I and everyone who ever lived are condemned to go through life not knowing what we had until it’s gone.
“It goes so fast,” Emily screams at the end. “We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize…all that was going on and we never noticed.” This is normally the place for the comforting bromide about how life is precious, live every moment to its fullest, carpe diem, appreciate your family while you have them, et cetera, et cetera. Wilder refuses. You’re not going to appreciate it. You’re going to glide blithely through your existence to its conclusion and then you’re going to wonder where the time went. Does anyone appreciate life, Emily asks? No, the Stage Manager tells her flatly. “Saints and poets, maybe. They do. Some.” But we’re not in that crew, guys. We’re going to end up like Emily, reliving our past, horrified at our ignorance, wanting only to detach ourselves from the world, and our passions, and our ambitions. Life may be a gift, but one we’re fated not to appreciate.
Creepy, disturbing, existential stuff, as powerful in its way as “Waiting for Godot.” The play hangs on to a sort of vague notion of an Almighty, a position at odds with its more existential elements, particularly in the third act. I attribute this to Wilder’s inability to accept the conclusions his otherwise existentialist philosophy leads him. Probably a good thing, too. The result is a play with a powerful message on transience, impermanence, and disaffection, but wrapped up in so much “Rah-rah-sis-boom-bah” Americana that you can still slide it past the cultural censors.
Sitting in the audience, I was of course thrown back to my own high school production, so many years ago. Like Emily, relived that moment from my past, and others. Realized, of course, how closed off I was, we all were, all looking anxiously toward the future, midterms, Winter Break, toward college and careers. Not being awake and alive and aware of the moment we were in, a moment that’s gone now, gone forever, like this one. And this one. And this. And, as my younger self was too busy living out his future to experience his present, I, in reliving the past, am repeating the same mistake now.
Heh. Heh heh heh.
Yeah, we keep doing this, I’m told. Forever and ever, until one day we stop.
Enjoy Thanksgiving. I mean it. Really. Enjoy it. The cranberry sauce, the turkey, the mashed potatoes, the football game and the Macy’s Day parade. It’ll be gone before we know it and we will not see it’s like again.
And if you happen to be in the New York area over the next two months, you might see this off-Broadway production. I plan to.
Gobble gobble, everyone.
It’s 3pm on a Sunday, a time when men my age are usually doing yard work, playing with their children, drinking beer/and or watching a football. I feel like I should be doing almost any of these things right now. I am not.
An ex-girlfriend calls and asks what I’m doing with my day. “Oh, just seeing some friends,” I say vaguely, which is true enough. What would be far more accurate is to say that I will be playing a game involving pencils, paper, and dice, and no, it’s not Yahtzee. This game, unlike Yahtzee, will require me to say things like “hang on, I think my elven-forged blade has a +1 damage against orcs.” A sentence that, when spoken aloud, assures that no one within earshot will ever have sex with you.
Yes, I’m playing Dungeons & Dragons. More to the point, I’m not playing that specific game, but another game like it. I’d tell you the name, but you’ve never heard of it, neither had I, and neither of us care. The game I’m playing (a fantasy involving people with psychic powers in outer space and, at my insistence today, Fro-Yo) is, like Dungeons & Dragons, a type of game known as a Role Playing Game, or RPG in gamer-geek argot. Don’t confuse this with military-geek argot, in which RPG stands for “Rocket Propelled Grenade.” If you do, you’re likely to either A) hand a soldier a hardcover rulebook with the picture of a gruesome monster on it when what he really needs is an anti-tank weapon or B) become very confused about why everyone in Black Hawk Down is SO concerned with playing Dungeons & Dragons in the heat of battle.
A girlfriend of mine once asked me to explain the concept behind RPGs to her once. Women: never ask a man to do this if you ever wish to find him sexually attractive again. Men: if a woman brings up a question like this, immediately toss a bright shiny object to distract her. If that doesn’t work, start talking about football until her eyes glaze over and she walks away.
An RPG is a game with no object, no rules, no end, and no way to win or lose. In fact, it stretches the definition of the word ‘game’ to the breaking point, beyond it, and then back again until the definition has wrapped around itself in a mobius strip of logic that leaves you wondering “why the heck are we doing this again?” To anyone unfamiliar with the world, it just looks like guys sitting around talking while checking numerical values in hard cover books or penciled in on sheets of paper. Occasionally, someone will roll some absuredly-sided dice, sometimes consisting of four to eleventy-billion faces.
Both the results of these dice rolls and the rules written within the books are somewhat arbitrary, and open to even more arbitrary interpretation by the person running the game. This person (alternately referred to as the “Dungeon Master,” “Game Master,” “Story Teller,” “Keeper of Lore,” and “Only guy willing to spend fifty dollars on a rule book, so he gets to tell us what to do all day,” though sometimes we just call him “Matt.”) Here, for example, is a sample of our exchange:
Dungeon Master: “The tires have been shot out from under your car. Give me a Dexterity roll to see if you get it under control.”
[Player proceeds to toss the worst combination of dice possible]
Player: “Do we all crash and die?”
Dungeon Master: “Nah. Let’s say you all make it out of a horrific crash that totals the car but leaves all with only minor injuries.”
It’s like that. The rules, such as they are, are to give the players something to read while they’re not actively involved in the plot of the game. It also lets everyone pretend that they’re not really just sitting around playing make-believe, but are involved in a legitimate social activity with its own paraphernalia and collectors items. How else is a company supposed to make money off this crap.
In a typical RPG, each player takes on the roll of character in a story. Think of yourself playing Master Chief from Halo or Lara Croft from Tomb Raider, except that instead of playing a little graphic cartoon on a TV screen, the character, like your sex life, is all in your head. You control your little imaginary friend by relaying your commands to the Dungeon Master, who will usually respond with dialogue like “your character crosses the street without incident,” “your character’s attempt to handle a firearm has led him to shoot himself in the foot,” or “I’ve just decided a twenty ton safe has landed on your character, because you ate the last of the Cheetos.”
Of course, the system is open to abuse, particularly when you have a player like myself who likes getting all smart-alecky. For example:
Game Master: “Okay, you’ve chased the villain to the nearest space port. What do you want to do while you’re there? Tony?”
Tony: “I’m going to check with the port authorities and see if I can determine when the villain left, if anyone recalls any information about who was traveling with him, and whether they remembered anything else that might aid us in our quest.”
Game Master: “Great. Jen?”
Jen: “I’m going to spend the down time making sure I’ve healed all the members of our party from our last round of combat.”
Game Master: “Okay, let’s say you accomplish that in short order. Vagabond?”
Vagabond: “I’m getting a Fro-Yo.”
Game Master: “What?”
Vagabond: “It’s a little character trait I’ve decided to give myself. My character will always hit the frozen yogurt stand whenever possible.”
Game Master: “Yeah, fine, whatever. You’re eating Fro-Yo.”
Vagabond: “Wait wait…I want to try to use my Charisma to charm the salesperson into giving me my Fro-Yo for free.”
Game Master: *sigh* “Fine. Give me a Charisma roll.”
Vagabond: “One success, two failures.”
Game Master: “You fail to charm the salesperson and are forced to pay full price for the fro-yo. MOVING ON…”
The fact that all of the action is taking place in your minds instead of on a TV screen, playing board, or a field with short grass and cheerleaders on the sidelines, can lead to some misunderstandings. You might, for example, spend four hours in which your character has been locked in a room, all because you neglected to tell the Game Master that you want to have your character search under the bed for a secret passage. The Game Master neglected to mention the presence of said bed in the room, although he swears up and down that he did, the end result being an entire afternoon in which you did nothing but ask another human being “are you SURE my character doesn’t have a chainsaw on him?” forty seven times.
When we were kids, we knew that playing these antiquated tabletop games with nothing more than pencils, paper, and dice, was horribly inefficient and illogical, that someday, video game systems would have the requisite graphics and processing power to allow all of this to be done by a computer in ways that were far cooler than we could imagine. Games would have complex, mysterious and emotional storylines, or at least would have conclusions more original than “Thank you for saving us, Mario, but our princess is in another castle!” And it all came true.Today, literally tens of millions of virgins, not all of them from South Korea, spend the majority of their waking lives playing in the World of Warcraft. There is no doubt that the games the kids play today are far cooler than any tabletop game I played as a kid.
So why play an inherently complicated game with arbitrary rules when I could enjoy the coldly logical world of Warcraft, where at least there are graphics, where all the boring dice rolling is replaced by random number generated subroutines and the computer takes care of all the silly statistics for you? I mean, if you’re going to be a geek, shouldn’t you want to be a geek with the coolest toy?
I should, feel complete shame at wasting a Sunday playing make believe with other adults. Even World of Warcraft players stare down their noses, their impossibly-rendered, beautifully-pixilated half-elven noses, at us. Book and pencil role playing games are the geekiest of the geeks, the ghetto in a world dominated by the rock star, massively multiplayer online role playing crowd.
But for all that, the old Dungeons and Dragons role playing game is still a human activity. It is, in fact, a manifestation of the oldest human social activity, the one where we all gathered around a campfire to listen to a friend tell stories of heroes who slew dragons. Aside from stand-up comedy and impossibly hipster venues like “The Moth,” these games are the only surviving manifestation of something humans used to do everyday, at the very dawn of time. And unlike an evening at Caroline’s, it only costs me a bag of Cheetos to get in.
Also, there’s Fro-Yo. There’s never enough Fro-Yo in Warcraft.
No, I’m not dead.
No, I haven’t posted in a month.
I’ve been busy. [Have you really? – ed] [No, I’ve been lazy. Bite me. -auth]
By way of repayment to loyal readers, here is a picture of a kitten:
My neighborhood is known for its churches. There’s quite a few of them, you see. And not your usual Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist churches. We’ve got those, too. But we also go for the more obscure sects, it seems. We don’t just have a Lutheran Church, we’ve got the Zion German Evangelical Lutheran Church. The pastor’s first name is Reinhard! We don’t just have a Catholic church, we’ve got a Maronite Catholic Church, Our Lady of Lebanon. We’ve got churches across the street from each other. Churches built on top of each other. We’ve got Jehovah’s Witnesses.
I’ve lived here for about five years now, and I was pretty sure I’d seen every church in the neighborhood, knew every particular idiosyncracy.
I was wrong.
Yes, my neighborhood is home to the Danish Seamen’s Church.
And lest you think this is just a holdover name from some bygone time when Danish Seamen trolled the wharves of Brooklyn Heights on the prowl for hookers and salted cod, check out the website. Hell, check out this picture:
Yeah, it’s hard-core Danish. No word on whether the parishoners are all sea pirates with peg legs, but I’m holding out hope.
Like so much else that is strange in this city, this merits further investigation…