Welcome to Spring!

March 29, 2008

Spring has sprung, and as always it presents the population with brand new activities to enjoy. (Granted, here in Western Pennsylvania the concept of the first day of spring is purely academic.) Circumstances have changed and the things once thought lost causes in the dark recesses of winter now become golden opportunities to screw up the rest of your year. So have fun this spring, and keep these thoughts close to the top of your mind:

Baseball: Please, for the love of all that is good in this world, why? Watching baseball is bad enough. It’s a boring, archaic game, less a pure sport of athletics and synergy and more of chunky guys battling it out for the best ever in hand-eye coordination—and not just for hitting the ball out of the park but poking a syringe needle into a butt cheek. People who follow baseball (read: people over the age of 50) will fulminate about the balance of pitching and hitting, and the intricate strategy involved in the process of the game. This is—to put it diplomatically—a steaming pile of lies and sinful transgressions. Baseball is reduced to “hack at ball with bat, run if you hit” when you get right down to it. And the only strategy involved is somehow managing to keep your salary costs low enough that you can laugh all the way to the bank to cash your luxury tax check. It doesn’t need to be said that the situation is entirely different for hockey, which, thanks to the foresight of the National Hockey League, the average season lasts about 18 months and pretty much any team with a stick and at least for Norwegians can make the playoffs. (sorry, Columbus.) It can therefore also be legitimately classified as a spring sport.

Finding Love: Spring is a notoriously busy time for getting notoriously busy. Bulky sweatshirts are shed, the air is fresh and breezy, and pink haltertops and sandy beaches are a pleasant substitute for an otherwise expensive Cialis prescription. Hormones are normally escalated to the point that the mere coexistence of opposing genders is enough to spark romance, as is evidenced by the popularity of spring break, dance clubs, and book store checkout lanes. (Hey, to each their own.) A word of warning, though: getting too preoccupied in the spring may lead to a summer of question marks and warning signs, a fall of stressful conversations and raging battles of reality versus star-struck love, and a destined, lonely winter bundled up in Uggs and your grandmother’s comforter, drinking hot chocolate laced with rum and listening to the Indigo Girls. I’m just sayin’.

Spring Cleaning: After the winter doldrums, where most people stay indoors breathing recycled air and not cleaning, it’s not only cathartic for people to clean, it’s also a good way to get your husband off his ass to do work by not putting out until he does. (See above.) A lot of junk accumulates over the fall and winter months, and most people will spend plenty of time carting bucketfuls of kitsch and paperwork, partly from a devoted sense of cleanliness, and partly from going through about one-fifth of last year’s insurance papers and tax forms before declaring “screw it” and chucking the whole pile in the wastebasket. It’s also useful as a psychological tool; the symbolic “cleaning of the house” will be a good segway to getting your own state of affairs in order, at least for the next two weeks before you get weak and eat a plate of chicken wings and call your ex.

Speeding: Spring often affords a small window of glorious, glorious opportunity for most people: exceeding the speed limit. At least, it is for people in temperate zones such as myself. During the winter months, large piles of gray, disgusting snow pile up on roads and make truly ridiculous speeding difficult to manage. After spring, road work tends to slow things down, since construction workers tend to look unkindly upon those who go 85 through work zones. So after the black ice melts but before the cones go up, it’s a wonderful opportunity to live out that fantasy you’ve always had: to put the metal to the medal and see how fact your Sebring can go on the highway. I’m cautiously putting my money on “not very much.”

Gardening: For those of you who aren’t aware that World War II is over, gardening presents a wonderful opportunity to 1) occupy your time with horticulture and nature; 2) get some exercise and fresh air after a stuffy winter; and 3) spend months upon months of hard and sweaty labor so that, at the beginning of fall, you will have about six medium-size deformed tomatoes and two dozen cucumbers that no one will ever eat, ever. Still, it’s a good way to get some use out of that straw hat you for some reason own, unless you plan on moving to Sao Paulo to be a banana rancher or star in a coffee commercial.

So there you have it, in rough order of who caresedness. Remember that spring is not only a reminder that new opportunities await the initiated, but also that taxes are soon to be due, demolishing all your hopes and dreams for a prosperous new season. Happy filing!

This Here’s A Story About Paul And Heather…

March 20, 2008

The verdict finally came down for the divorce case of Heather Mills and Paul McCartney. Both sides put forth their cases, and most professional pundits gave forth their opinions on the outcome. Of course, those who were familiar with the case knew that Heather didn’t…uh…have a leg to stand on.

Great, now that that’s out of the way, wee may continue. Under normal circumstances, making fun of the handicapped is a reproachable breach of decorum, a tasteless last bastion of the talentless, humorless hack. On the other hand, it is Heather Mills, and being handicapped and being a gold-digging unrepentant whore cancel each other out.

Granted, we still don’t know all the behind-the-scenes information. Nor do I normally really care all that much. My involvement in the lives of the rich and famous has a pretty sharply declining cliff of interest for me. Without an incredibly graphically detailed description of exactly what it is that a drunken, coked-up Lindsay Lohan does in the darkened hallway of a Lisbon discotheque to earn her reputation as one whose knees are not, in fact, in any danger of permanently getting stuck together, I don’t much care all that much. Cest la vie, and all that, they said, as the Titanic crashed into Gomorrah.

And yet this particular story just irritated me to no end. Not irritated in the same sense that knowing that Social Security isn’t getting fixed or that it’s going to snow at the end of March irritates me, but knowing that there are people out there—undeserving people, mind you—that are getting more than they should ever be rewarded. And Heather Mills seemed to embody that exact, specific demographic.

Mills started off as a mere blip on my cultural radar. It’s not exactly unknown to those who know me that while I will concede that while the Beatles are a cultural icon, I put them right up there with Bear Stears and professional baseball as the single most overrated cultural entity of mankind. Partly it’s the songs—I find that their range of their early bubble-gum pop to their later psychedelic let’s-change-the-world-through-music nonsense has only a small overlapping era of a few years where they produced songs I actually enjoy. Granted, I think the Rolling Stones are overrated, too, but at least they don’t make any pretense about art or world peace or other intangible, unattainable things that sell records but also delude fans into thinking any of it matters. They’re officially known as the E*Trade Rolling Stones, for crying out loud, but at least they’re laughing all the way to the bank, which is more than Ringo Starr can say.

So the trials and tribulations of Paul McCartney’s love life weren’t exactly something I pondered over my toast and mango juice in the morning. I usually concentrate more on crafting new and creative ways to get out of doing any work for that day while still getting paid. So when I offhandedly heard about McCartney finally moving past his beloved Linda, a woman who is a saint because while she couldn’t sing and wasn’t very good within the music industry at least she wasn’t Yoko Ono, I kind of registered that in the back of my mind of things to dredge up from the stormy recesses of my brain if it could ever conceivably help me get in some girl’s pants.

The few times I actually saw Heather I wasn’t impressed. Sure, it’s possible it’s because I only saw her on Larry King Live, which is a painful enough process in and of itself, and it’s possibly that it was the first time I had seen Paul in quite some time, probably since “Band on the Run.” Will I still love him when he’s sixty four? Depends on whether all of his face has to be sixty four. Holy cats, did the doctors just paste big chunks of foam rubber on his face and hope he wouldn’t notice? Anyway, the entire process soured me to Heather, who kind of came off as a bossy witch. (Ahem.) I was willing to write it off at the time that it was because I was watching her try to converse with two extraordinarily old men who didn’t quite seem to grasp the fact that they were, in fact, being broadcast live on television.

But over the next few years my opinion did not approve. Again, I was more than willing to write it off to the grumpiness of someone who has gone through extensive physical trauma in their life, though I kind of assumed marrying a freakin’ Beatle would have been enough of a self-esteem boost. And I was also willing to cut her some slack, not being used to being hounded by the press—and not just the press but the British paparazzi, a relationship that is akin to comparing the jug of stale, fetid water sitting in your garage with an Indian typhoon that’s trying to eat your soul.

As the details of the divorce proceedings came out, though, I turned against the woman. I’m an objective person, or I like to pretend that I am, so I incorporate the fact that I’m probably only getting one side of the story. But somehow I doubt it. Mills maintains that she is not a gold digger, which only proves that she apparently does not exactly know what the definition of a gold digger is. (A good reference for her, by the way: any mirror.) And her protestations that $49 million just wasn’t enough to raise their daughter with—saying, in effect, well, I guess she won’t have enough money to fly home to see daddy—is something that would give any PR executive a heart attack. When she fired her lawyers and represented herself, it may have seemed an aggressive and bold move on her end but really just made her look like a deluded, power-hungry amateur former high-class prostitute and pornographic model. (I’m just sayin’.) The last straw, though, is when, after the verdict, she poured water over the head of Paul’s attorney, the last, desperate, childish act of a desperate, childish woman. And that is all the tasteless justification you need to call her Eileen.

A Case On Behalf of Elevating The Creator of Sudafed to the Papacy

March 8, 2008

I got sick this week.

In Western Pennsylvania, we’re undergoing a minor epidemic of sorts. Plenty of people are contracting the flu, or at least flu-like symptoms, and are flooding the hospital rooms awaiting treatment. Now, I’m not averse to seeking medical treatment, but I always kind of wonder about people who somehow manage to get to the hospital any time a cough lasts more than two hours and yet seem to have cognitive difficulties in, say, showing up to work on time. Then, of course, I remembered that the reason all these people are hot-footing it to the hospital instead of actually being productive with their lives is that everyone in Western Pennsylvania is approximately 2000 years old and if it wasn’t for sitting around the waiting room they’d be eying up Powder Blue Tag Day at the Salvation Army.

Of course, the hospitals’ reaction to the patient overload is to weed out those who have truly life-threatening illnesses with those that simply need to drink a lot of water and maybe take a day off instead of trying to save it for being “sick” on July 5th. Thankfully, they’ve come up with a fairly comprehensive battery of medical tests to differentiate these two groups:

Patient: I think I have the flu.
Nurse: Do you have insurance?

I don’t think I have the flu. Even though the company I work for engages in the cost-saving practice of recirculating all of the air in the building instead of having to subscribe to a costly daily influx of fresh air, I have managed to successfully avoid being sick this season…until this week. I went from a small tickle in the back of my throat to grasping desperately at the imaginary blades that were continually piercing my sinuses in a matter of a day and a half. But it still seemed like a fairly normal winterish cold to me, so I figured I would soldier on and see how things turned out.

Whilst I was sick, I was trying to manage it as holistically as possible, but it just wasn’t happening. I tend to have a reasonably robust immune system, in the sense that the natural colds and bugs everyone catches are mild for me and run their course over the matter of a few days. Sure, there’s the occasional day where allusions to open faucets and Dresden would not be too terribly off target. But it’s been nearly ten years since I’ve had a drag-down, knockout illness that made me locate random objects and convert them into abstract manifestations of things I can beg to for the sweet release of death. (“Please, white ceramic toilet, crack and fall upon my head one final time to prevent that incessant throbbing interrupted only occasionally for the act of evacuating the contents of my stomach via multiple conduits.”) And that was in college, where the normal rules of health and sanitation no longer apply in any meaningful way.

Of course, I hate 1) doctors, 2) medicine, and 3) science, so I tend towards self-medication. And as far as I’m concerned the only cure anyone ever needs, from the common cold to congestive heart failure, is a healthy supply of cough drops. This masks my mental block of not actually doing anything to cure my illness; it also signals to anyone within range to realize that I smell like menthol and probably should steer clear of me lest they end up spending the week feeling like those unfortunate folks on 28 Days Later.

To complicate things, I hadn’t really been sleeping right. On Sunday night, I laid my head down for my nightly snooze, thinking there would be little else in the world to worry about except for perhaps a mild case of the standard Monday Morning Grumpy-Poos. I had yet to feel sick.

I awoke the next morning and my bedroom was like Ho Chi Minh City. I had somehow managed to ball up all my blankets—each individually—and launch them across the room. I had opened drawers, kicked over boxes, knocked over stacks of books, and rifled through my papers. And I had no recollection of doing any of this. Now, I somehow managed to make it through the first thirty years of my life without ever having a nightmare. And as far as I know I didn’t that night, either, though I had this vague sense of intensity through the night—an understatement, given how disrespectfully I treated my blankets. I wasn’t tired or angry when I woke up, but I probably would have given John Kerry a run for his money, at least in the realm of unpredictable night thrashing.

Monday night, the same thing happened. Only this time it wasn’t as bad, but that was mostly because I hadn’t bothered to clean up from the previous night.

Tuesday night…well, the less said, the better. Suffice it to say I woke up around two in the morning curled up shirtless in the fetal position on my floor. Granted, I’ve spent a lot of two o’clocks in my life waking up in this fashion, but at least this time I wasn’t crying.

Wednesday night, I said the hell with this, and took two Benedryl. Problem solved.

Only perhaps too well. I’m a big fan of Benedryl, but I’m certainly aware that different people have different reactions. For me, as far as I’m concerned, given how I act when I take Benedryl, it would have been a sure way to have my draft exemption revoked had I been taking it forty years ago. I’m also fully aware that while taking one Benedryl is bad enough, two is actively making the choice to subtract actual years off of your life, but after a third night of unprofessional nocturnal behavior it was a cost I was willing to pay. (To be fair, this was Benedryl’s “pansy-strength” dosage, which is still strong enough to conquer Tikrit if the UN would let us.)

Note that this was independent of my flu-like symptoms. I didn’t start feeling sick until Tuesday night. I assumed the Benedryl would work. While it stopped the night terrorism, I was still sick.

After a day and a half, I realized that this wasn’t a common cold, but something a little stronger, and eating Vicks Vap-O-Rub out of the jar and slipping knockout drops in my coffee wasn’t going to cut it. I was starting to get sinus pressure, which, given my historical record, occurs once every never. So instead of becoming the person I used to sit next to at work who spent 100% of her effort in any activity in her entire life complaining about her sinuses, I decided to nip it in the bud. So I stopped by the drug store and bought a medication I had never, in my entire life, taken before: Sudafed.

I am become death, the shatterer of worlds.

Now, my decision to purchase Sudafed was based on less than rational premises. At the time, I was kind of stumbling through the aisles at seven in the morning, half drunk on Benedryl and half delirious from sinus pressure. (Oh, don’t look at me like that. You’ve straggled into Denny’s at three in the morning under less respectable circumstances than this.) At this point, my market decision would be based not on active ingredients or price, but on what graphical representation of generic icons destroying viruses was prominently displayed on the box. It was a tough call, because there were really only two medications that seemed to match my symptoms. One of them had a flower on it; I think this was supposed to signify that, once I took their medicine, I would be able to smell flowers with no problem. Considering at this point that I was about to demand that the medication I purchase have a dog-molesting Nazi drug fiend garroting a virus in front of its children, I was in no mood to buy anything with flowers on it. So I bought Sudafed instead.

Now, Sudafed almost lost out in the Battle of Me Making Up My mind, too, since there is a huge yellow box that says “Does not contain Pseudoephedrine.” This did not seem like a selling point to me, really, but in the end I wasn’t going to blame the manufacturer of Sudafed any more than the people that have gone out and cut off the balls of the FDA regulators that ever thought about approving any drug that might actually help someone without there being an iron-clad guarantee that anyone who has a one out of two billion change of dying is not a lawyer.

So I took some Sudafed, for the first time in my life. And now, I am an adult.

Normally, while I’m at work, I tend to not involve myself with the affairs of others. Mostly because most transactions that occur on company property do not fall within the jurisdiction of being any of my business, but primarily because everyone at work (for some inexplicable reason) considered me to be an unapproachable monster. But whilst under the influence of Sudafed, I was engaging in activities I never before knew possible. I was flirting with single, attractive girls that were well out of my league. I was flirting with married, attractive girls that were well out of my league. I was telling humorous anecdotes about doing my taxes to anyone in the listening audience of my cubicle. I think I was actually doing more work, too, though I’m pretty sure I just felt like I was doing more work but was really doing the same amount of productivity as before, only with less blatant passive-aggressiveness.

I was, in a word, high. (I type this in the past tense in a futile and deceitful manner, as if I’m not high right now.) How this thing is permitted in the open market is beyond my comprehension. My decision-making processes had been altered to the point where I was making left turns on red, buying Outkast ringtones and tipping more than 15% for merely adequate service. And I’m fairly certain that there are other, worse decisions I’ve made, since there are reasonably large chunks of time that have effectively been blocked out of my memory, either out of some sense of self-preservation or because of some chemically induced reaction.

Of course, whether Sudafed is actually making me feel better is questionable. It could simply be that I’m just as sick as before, I just don’t care now. Which as far as I’m concerned is fine. Potential liver failure is a small price to pay for the unconditional apathy about my everyday life, don’t you think? Maybe you should ask me again in six to eight hours.

Gary Gygax, RIP

March 4, 2008

Gary Gygax, co-creator of the Dungeons and Dragons line of games, failed his save roll today. He was 69.

Gygax probably isn’t particularly well known by name outside of a few pockets of specific demographics, that demographic undeniably the overlap of the “young,” “male,” and “geek” population. (Although he had a voice spot that barometer of ultimate celebrity, Futurama, was fulfilled with all the grace and dignity that talking cartoon robots drawn by twelve year old South Koreans can generate.) Sure, sure, there are middle-aged guys playing GURPS and girls who play D&D and a few inner bell curve populates who crack out the ten-sided die on occasion, but it’s difficult to not see role playing games as primarily a young adolescent male hobby. Also see: kinda creepy.

I’ve visited the town of RPG but I’ve never moved there. In my teenage years I’d play some science fiction-based role playing games—I wasn’t particularly interested in fantasy games, a weird combination of elves and spells and hellhounds and warmed-over pseudo-occult Disneyfied Alistair Crowley-style Merlins and trolls. Certainly, this was the epitome of geekdom: the ranking clearly goes playing bridge with grandma’s friends > chess player > sci-fi fan > kobold enthusiast. So by throwing dice around in a world of warp engines and alien races, I solidified my own self of self-importance by declaring that at least I wasn’t playing dungeon hockey, even though it would take only one sufficiently advanced technology to prove that we both bleed red. Ultimately, I decided that the world of RPGs was just a touch too geeky for me to tolerate, so I abandoned it to go geocaching and pursue a degree in Economics, clearly a lateral move at least. Right?

In Gygax’s world, though, there was nothing at all like it. (Actually, the first rule in Gygax’s world is that proper nouns should be allowed in Scrabble. But, later.) The best anyone could come up with were these monstrous tabletop wargames simulating such grand campaigns as the Napoleonic Wars or the Peloponnesian Conflict, “simulating” being about as accurate as Survivor being an accurate simulation of surviving. No, these wargames didn’t have much to do with dungeons or dragons, but they had plenty of complicated rules to argue about over a table full of baldy painted pewter horses in a four-year span every other Thursday night.

By creating Dungeons and Dragons, he filled a niche probably nobody in the world knew existed. The ensuing commercial success of D&D established a large, lucrative hobby that exists in almost ridiculous proportions today. (Technical note: Dungeons and Dragons and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons are two completely different products, a fact that 1) the people who should know that already knew that, and 2) the people who didn’t know that don’t really care.) Of course, as with all new, creative, and ground-breaking ideas in this world, it took only a few years for it to become a small commercial darling into a company beset with partnership drama, financial difficulties, and a Saturday morning cartoon, all clear signals that the death bell is soon to toll as soon as it can get a good +2 modifier to do so.

Still, Gygax launched what would turn out to be genre that billowed out beyond a sixteen-page bluebook filled with spreadsheets and formulas. The computer game industry makes more money than the movie industry, and there are very few games on the market that can’t point to some influence to role playing. While role players are hardly mainstream, no longer will passersby stop by a half dozen teenagers grouped around a handdrawn map with a bunch of dice and half-painted orcs and ask “What the hell are you guys doing? You guys are dorks.” They will now stop by a half dozen teenagers grouped around a handdrawn map with a bunch of dice and half-painted orcs and ask “What the hell are you guys doing? You guys are dorks. Come fix my computer.” (Aside: the response to that last statement is dependent on the gender and amount of cleavage of the asker.)

All broad, sweeping generalizations aside (cough, cough), role playing games also confer several extraordinarily important skills and benefits to its players.

1) It encourages face to face socialization, at least compared to MMORPGs and programming visual basic to display and repeat on the screen “Miss Dalton is teh hott!” along with a crude graphical representation of her most outstanding attributes.
2) It familiarizes players with mathematical equations and rational thinking, a highly prizes skill even if it’s only incorporated into a game, given how important calculating things in base eight helps out in the real world.
3) Many a role player has thanked their lucky stars they played Dungeons and Dragons as a child when the inevitable horde of armored changelings descends upon them on their thirstiest birthday.

The fantasy genre didn’t rise and set on Dungeons and Dragons, but it did a lot to legitimize itself over the ensuing decades. What A Beautiful Mind did for eccentric game theorists and Million Dollar Baby did for foxy boxing, role players can point to The Lord of The Rings and say, “ours.” Also see: kinda creepy.