Saturday, May 25, 2013

Zen and the Art of Video Games

I get a little overwhelmed sometimes. The gurus call it the “monkey mind”: that voice in the back of your head that chatters about all the things you should be doing.

For instance, today I still need to do my daily yoga practice. I should probably play guitar a little, because music is good for the soul, and also because I haven’t in a week. I need to do some laundry, vacuum the living room, maybe go for a run while the weather holds. Oh, and I should do a lesson on my Japanese language program, so I can be fluent before we travel there in five years, after I check the bank account to make sure the five-year plan is still on track. And what am I having for dinner? Do I even have food? Do I need to get groceries?
And with so much to do, where the heck do I start?

At this point in the narrative, the monkey mind starts screaming and hurling feces, so I flee to the basement and play video games, accomplishing nothing productive except to move some pixels around.

Luckily for me, and I suppose for all of you, too, video games are full to brimming with Zen wisdom, re: getting stuff done. So hit start, Player 2, and grab that controller over there. Let’s meditate.


“You are not prepared.” Illidan Stormrage, World of Warcraft
I remember how excited I was, back when everyone was playing vanilla-W.o.W., when Blizzard released the preview video for the first expansion, full of big monsters, big dungeons, impossible bosses, and a voice-over of Illidan taunting us. “You are not prepared,” he said.

And I said, “Oh, hell yeah! I can’t wait to start this thing!” All the players knew we’d bloody-well get prepared and we were foaming at the bit for it.

Why can’t we do that in real life? Why do we have to plan everything? We research, we plan, but we never just jump in. “I’ll start it on Monday,” we say, or the less specific “a Monday,” or “after the holidays” or “after that project at work.”

People, in the early versions of World of Warcraft, they didn’t even have a boat to Auberdine. They had a man named “Captain Placeholder” standing on the dock in Menethil. Did they delay the whole game because they didn’t have the boat ready? No. They published that.

You’re not prepared. You don’t know how things are going to turn out. Just do something anyway and see what happens.


“Our princess is in another castle.” Toad, Super Mario Bros.
I wanted to commit violence on Toad the first time I ever defeated castle 1-4. “Do you have any idea how many hours I spent on this? How hard I worked? And now you’re telling me there are more stages to this game?”

I fumed. I raged. I threw the controller down and invented rage quitting.

And then later I got back on the Nintendo and tried the next level.

That’s your life, right there. The princess is always in another castle. Eating right, working out, cleaning up after yourself, paying bills: these are the things that you will never finish and you need to get over that. Learning and growing and maturing as a person? You never finish doing those things either.

There will be hard things. There will be tedium.
But there will also be joy and love and fun, because this is a game after all.

And you know what happens when you find your princess? The game’s over.


“It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this!” some old guy, The Legend of Zelda
Ever stop to think about how pretty damn convenient it was that an old guy with a free sword was just sort of… standing there… waiting for an adventurer to come by?

Not much of a “legend” without that old guy, hmm?

But let’s take it a step further: how about if Link, faced with this saintly old man and his free sword, had said, “Nah, I’m good here.”
“Swords aren’t really my thing. I’m more of an axe man.”
“If only I had a wheelbarrow. That would be something.”

No, he didn’t say those things. Because that would be stupid. This is obviously meant to be and just-take-the-sword-goshdarnit.

In case you haven’t noticed, you start that game with an empty inventory screen and an empty wallet. Link (or whatever else you name your little dude if you’re not a purist like I am) didn’t know he was going on an adventure when he left the house that day. He relied on the kindness of strangers (and significant property destruction) to get the job done.

You’re not going to know when you start your adventure either. Someday, someone, who may or may not be a mysterious old man, is going to walk up to you and do or say something that will change your destiny. You may never see that person again. You may marry that person and spend the rest of your lives together. The point is life changing events happen every day. Take what the universe offers you.


Game over, man.

It’s time to go back to the real world now, but hopefully you’ve enjoyed the diversion of a fun little game or two.

Still, I hear that real life is better than any video game, if you play it right. Also, the graphics are wicked cool.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Cleanliness is Next to Alcoholism

Lately, I’ve been frustrated by housework.

I don't live in a dump. The house is picked up. There's a logical flow to the furniture and the way the kitchen is laid out. I try to keep on top of the dishes and laundry. I wave the vacuum attachments around in the arcane signs that ward off cat hair at least once a week.

I just don't feel like it makes any difference.

Because I have stuff.

Everywhere I turn, there’s stuff. It’s on my counters and my table and my couch. It fills every cabinet and closet and drawer. It’s under my bed, and sometimes on my bed, and in my garage and every other room too. Some of it’s awesome stuff. Some of it’s Matt’s stuff. Some of it’s… hang on… what is this anyway? Where did this come from? What does it do? Why do I have this?


I’ve long known that I have a stronger stomach than most people when it comes to gore. Years of zombie movies have inoculated me against sights that make other people wretch. Compared to your average slasher film, those “Trauma in the ER” shows are tame: I watch with academic curiosity as people get operated on, sutured, saved from horrendous accidents. As such, I have consigned myself to the fact that there are certain shows I can only watch when my poor, sensitive husband is not in the room.

One of those shows is Hoarders, which exposes people who live with so much clutter and junk that they can’t walk through their own homes. Some can’t open certain doors or use their own kitchens, others have literally lost pets in their mess. It’s madness.

It’s like a train wreck – I’m disgusted, but I can’t look away.

When Matt is on business trips or working late, sometimes I like to curl up on the couch with a fluffy blanket and a bowl of ice cream and queue up an episode online. “I’m glad I don’t live like that,” I say to the cats, who purr contentedly in my lap.

It’s one of my guilty pleasures, the voyeuristic feeling of watching a show with no artistic merit or positive value to it, save one:

At the end of the show (or sometimes in the middle of the show), without fail, I leap from the couch, tossing aside cats and fuzzy blanket, and declare, “I have to go clean now.”


“Really?” a friend said when I told her about it. “It has the opposite effect on me: I watch Hoarders and then decide my house isn’t so bad and I can totally read a book instead of cleaning.”

I don’t know, you guys: I can’t stop seeing myself in the people on that show. I have stuff everywhere!

I don’t know where it all comes from. I don’t even go shopping. Still, these things accumulate. An item here, an item there, that little thrill one gets from finding the perfect product at the perfect price, and then it’s a week later and I’m looking at one of these spur-of-the-moment purchases and thinking “Why did I buy that?”

I often think about just getting rid of everything and starting again from scratch, setting up my home like the sparsely decorated beach houses in the travel magazines. I sit on the couch, glance around the living room, and plan.

Yes, indeed. Everything must go. 

Except for that picture. I really like it.

And that vase.

I should keep that throw blanket too.

And that wall hanging is actually really nice and would look great in a beach house.

And there’s that other thing …

And eventually I’ve justified keeping everything I own. Seems that all of it would look fantastic in the fictional beach house if I only arranged it properly.

The problem must be the homeowner (which in this case is me).


I don't really like cleaning. Nobody does.

See, cleaning is like alcohol. Nobody likes alcohol either.

(Alcohol / Cleaning) is disgusting. The first time you try it, you think it’s (gross / not fun). You wonder what all the fuss is about. Maybe you know older and wiser people who (imbibe / routinely clean up after themselves), and you look up to these people so you keep trying it.

If you stick with it, you start to notice the benefits of (the occasional drink / having a clean house) so you (develop a taste for it / just get’er done). If pressed, you’ll admit that it’s still (sort of disgusting / tedious and boring), but you like the (buzz / sense of satisfaction) you get from it.

Early on you learn that if you (drink / clean) too much at once, you’ll feel it the next day. Sometimes it’s worth it, but mostly it’s better to spread it out over time.

Of course, one mustn’t go overboard. We all have that friend who (drinks / cleans) too much. Their (life is a total mess / house is totally spotless), and that’s just not right.  These people, we all agree, desperately need Jesus, or a hobby, or an intervention.

Sometimes people have (deep-seated personal issues stemming from a lifetime of familial or societal abuse / stuff). Maybe they (lack access to reliable and affordable mental health care / don’t want to get rid of their stuff). These people use (drinking / cleaning) as a coping mechanism. Really, we should pity these poor people. Because they’re (crazy / oh heck yeah so crazy).


So my house is clean but it’s full of stuff.

I don’t have all the answers.

But I might go have that drink.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Find Your "This"

“I was reading your post about being a nude model,” said a friend. “I admire your courage. I could never do that.”
“It was easy, actually. I just stood there.”
“You know what I mean!” she said, laughing. “I could never be that comfortable with my body.”
I wasn’t always. Let me tell you a little story.
I would be alone at the beach.
Sort of.
Well, practically.
I mean, my family was going with me but they didn’t count.
I would see the ocean for the first time in my life, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how horrible it would be. I was fourteen and my family didn’t, you know, “get” me. I mean, come on! We had nothing in common! What does one even DO with these people for four freaking days?
On the phone with my friend Melanie as I packed my favorite long-sleeved shirts, I said, “I wish you could come with me. Then I’d have someone to talk to.”
“Talk about what?” said Melanie, “How boring it is to hang out in a cabin ignoring the beach? Yeah, that’d be loads of fun.”
“It wouldn’t have to be like that,” I said. “We could find something to do.”
“Chica, it’s the beach. What people DO is go to the beach.”
I sighed into the phone. “I’ll go to the beach if I can go fully clothed.”
“Uh-uh,” she said. “We’re not having this conversation again. You need to get some sun on your pasty flesh.”
It had been a boom year for my adolescent development: I was tripping over my own feet, greasy, struggling with acne. My swimsuit from last year didn’t fit anymore. In any capacity. My bra size had increased at a speed that made the economic inflation rate seem tame by comparison. “My flesh is never seeing the light of day again,” I said. “I’m converting to Vampirism.”
“Just promise you’ll do one thing for me while you’re gone, okay?” she said.
“Stop reading Anne Rice?”
“That too.”
“What else?” I asked.
“Promise first.”
“Do you promise?” Melanie insisted.
“Sure, I promise.”
“For at least ten minutes, hang around completely naked.”
I tried to laugh her off, but she was quick to remind me I had promised. I begged, threatened, offered bribes, but I was stuck. You can’t just break a promise to one of your very best friends, not when you’re fourteen. I had plenty of time to think about it on the long drive to South Padre, fretting over a future that would either contain nudity or broken vows. I stared at my own arms for hours as we crossed Texas, lost in thought. Am I as pale as I think I am? Am I supposed to be this hairy? Good Lord, my knuckles are wrinkly - what is that even about? Every inch of me was gross, every appendage lacking in some way.
When we reached the raised beach house late in the day, after we unloaded the car, everyone but me got ready to go to the beach. “Take your time,” said Mom, trying not to pressure me. “Walk after us if you feel like it.” I watched them walk down the stairs and along the road that led to the shore, letting the curtains fall shut when I lost sight of them.
Alone, I wondered what to do with myself. I read a few chapters of a novel and checked the local cable channels, but could concentrate on neither with this geas hanging over my head.
This is ridiculous, I thought. I have to get this done so I can say it’s done.
I marched into the bathroom and stripped. This was it. I could be naked for ten minutes while everyone was gone, then tell Melanie I had done my knightly duty, fulfilled my oath. I would be safe in the bathroom where my family wouldn’t question my state of undress if they returned unexpectedly.
“Okay,” I said to myself. “We’re good here. We’re fine. This isn’t so… Oh my God, my thighs are huge.”
It was easily the biggest mirror I had ever seen. My reflected thighs were as big as posts, like something you’d find in the lumber section at Home Depot. There was nowhere I could stand where I couldn’t see them – in the tub, by the door, even perched on the toilet, my incandescent flesh overwhelmed me from every direction, shining like a beacon of Gondor. Screw this. Ten minutes is too long to have to look at that, I thought.
But… ten minutes? I looked around. There were no clocks in the bathroom. I cracked the door and peeped out, toward the only clock in the beach house, the microwave in the cabin’s kitchenette, flashing 12:00 uselessly. It was easily a mile away. My heart pounded as I lingered in the doorframe, taking deep breaths. I pictured the front door slamming open: the propriety police would bust me on multiple counts of living it up. The judge at my hearing would be stern faced. The Mission Impossible theme played in my head as I stepped toward the microwave, carrying a towel just in case, prepared to duck behind furniture for additional cover.
I fumbled with the buttons, changing the time twice before I managed to set the timer. Despite the cabin’s air conditioning on my bare skin, my face felt flushed. I went to the fridge for a root beer, immediately pressing the can to my forehead, but it hadn’t been in there long enough to cool off.
Cracking a window for fresh air, holding my towel protectively in front of me, I looked out into darkness. The sun had set while I dithered over my puritanical upbringing. Yellow streetlights illuminated the empty street below me and little else. In the deepening twilight, there wasn’t a soul in sight.
Leaning forward for a better view, I caught a glimpse of the ocean down the road. The breeze carried the mingled scents of sea and wood smoke from a bonfire somewhere. The waves lapped with a sound I had only ever heard before from white noise nature CDs, pulling my soul like a little tide.
I had a crazy thought then that couldn’t have come from fourteen-year-old me. In a moment of time-travel, I received advice from an older me, a thirty-, fifty-, eighty-year-old me, and she said, “This! This is what your friend was talking about! Not the fear, not the indecision. This is a moment you will remember forever. Do it! Do it while you’re young and stupid! This is going to make a great story someday!”
I opened the door to the balcony at the back of the house, stepped over my towel as it fell, stepped into the evening air, completely naked, and stood there for the space it took me to finish the warm root beer, leaning against the porch railing with the sounds of the ocean and the gulls, and I thought, This! This this this! at the breeze and the scents and what might have been stars behind the clouds.
Then I heard the microwave timer go off inside the cabin and I ran for my room like the coward I am and didn’t stop until I had my pajamas on. Sprawled on the bed, I buried my face in a pillow to stifle maniacal giggles and I knew – knew! – down to my bones that eighty-year-old me was right: This is a great story.
Don’t you think?

Saturday, May 4, 2013

I Write the Song Titles

It was raining when I pulled up at the library the other morning, thirty degrees colder than it was the day before, made worse by the stiff wind coming down from the north. I huddled against the elements as I shuffled my key ring around to the library key, not watching where I was going.

I nearly fell over when a duck flew out of my path. A whole flock had been hanging out under the overhang by the library door. I watched them fly away toward the pond at the park.

“Inundated by ducks…” I thought. “I feel a song coming on…”


Guys, you won’t believe this, but my friends and I have written an album!

Or the liner notes for one, anyway.

Yeah, we’re pretty underground. You’ve probably never heard of us.

It all started about ten years ago around my kitchen table.

“Congratulations! The beast is dead. You search its den and you find the crown that will free the imprisoned god,” said Alex, our Dungeon Master for the night.

There was much rejoicing from the gathered nerds. “Awesome!” I said.

“That was a tough one,” said Matt.

“What else do we find?” asked Dave.

“Nothing,” Alex said, holding up his hands to staunch the rising protests. “I planned for you to get your reward after you free the god.”

“So I guess it would be a bad idea for me to say my character tries on the crown?” said Zach.

“His character doesn’t do that,” said Sarah. “His character does nothing and behaves admirably all the way back to the god in the basement.”

I giggled. “That sounds like a song title. ‘The God in the Basement’. Can’t you picture it? Like something you’d hear at a coffee shop, something Counting Crows would sing.”

“Maybe we should write it!” said Bridget.

We all agreed. Great idea! Let’s write a song! One of us will get right on that…


I thought about it.

For approximately ten seconds.

Then I forgot about it and moved on.

I’m not entirely ignorant, musically speaking. I’ve got great rhythm and I do pick around on my guitar whenever the mood strikes me.

The problem is the mood only strikes me about once a week and I can forget everything I know about music theory in three days. Every time I pick up a song sheet and try to sight read I have to recite “Elder Gods Break Dance Fabulously” and teach myself the notes all over again from scratch. It’s like if Memento was presented by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Still, I have no trouble imagining where great musicians get their ideas. Sometimes I look out over a moving event or a beautiful scene and I think, “Dude, that’s deep… I feel a song coming on…” except this thought is always followed mere moments later by “Yeah, no, I’ve got nothing.”

But I never let this stop me from writing down the song titles.


When Dave and Bridget took Matt and me out for my birthday, Matt and Dave both asked for kids menus so they could color and do the word search. Because they’re boys, this quickly devolved into crayon sword fights, with tragic results.

“I can’t believe you broke it!” Dave wailed.

“Dude, man up,” said Matt.

“Maybe I’ll just take the remnants of my broken crayon and go home!”

“Hold up!” said Bridget. “I think I feel a song coming on!”


“I nearly got my finger when I was chopping the veggies over here,” said Sarah, making a group dinner at my house one night.

“That would have been awful!” I said.

“Yeah, I’m sure no one would have appreciated blood on the carrots.” She grew quiet.

I thought about what she’d said. “No, I meant the part where you would have lost a finger…”

“What? Oh, yes. Sorry. I thought I felt a song coming on.”


“How did you get so good at this?” Dave asked Big Zach at the New Years party, after an amazing performance at Dance Dance Revolution.

“We had the arcade version at the theater when I worked there. Sometimes we’d play at night.”

“It’s your turn, Dave. Show us how it’s done,” Matt said.

“How what’s done? Falling down impressively?” Dave asked.

“Oh, hey! New song title!” I said, writing it down.


And I just kept writing them down. It’s kind of an Indie thing – I wouldn’t expect you to understand – but it’s my soundtrack. With titles like these, and the memories to go with them, we’re so hipster, we don’t even need music.

Without further ado, I now present for the first time ever, an epic musical event ten years in the making...

The Blind Cave Salamanders debut album, Lamentations on Wednesday.

1. The God in the Basement
2. Falling Down Impressively
3. Remnants of my Broken Crayon
4. Fear the Suburbia
5. Long walks with porpoise
6. I Blame the Scruples
7. Jogging on Broken Beaches
8. Giant Japanese Robots
9. Waiting for Haiku
10. Sauce Packet Wisdom
11. Blood on the Carrots
12. Deja Voodoo
13. Supernatural Frog
14. The Eleven and A Half Commandments
15. Paralysis by Analysis
16. Sweater Curse
17. The Muffin Crumbles
18. Mystifying Biscuits
19. Zest with a Sprig of Justice
Bonus Track: Inundated by Ducks

You can say you heard of it here before it was cool.