Monday, September 28, 2009

Hellmouth Confidential

I seem to be surrounded by high school these days. And given that that was, by far, the worst experience of my life to date, I'm not sure how thrilled I am about it. However I feel about it, though, the convergence is quite strange.

First, there's my own kid, who's a sophomore right now at an absolutely fantastic private school that I am paying a fortune for but that is worth every damn penny, including the pennies we borrowed to make it happen. This Saturday was a "back to school" day for the parents, in which we actually go through an abbreviated version of our kids' real day, attending all their classes to get a taste of what it's like for them. And what it's like for them is so completely different from what it was like for me that I can't help but be filled with both incredible happiness and pride for my daughter, but also, I admit, a little jealousy at what she's getting that I didn't. Not petty jealousy, just more the wistful kind. And not just at the curriculum or class size either, which are both incredible, but also at the basic fact that it's a "nerd school," in which everyone there is smart and therefore doesn't have to worry about being a dork, or being "uncool". It doesn't hurt, at all, that pop culture itself has done a 180 since my youth and that "nerd" and "cool" are now, incredibly, somewhat synonymous, at least in some circles, but it feels like more than that to me. These kids all look like they're actually comfortable in their own skin--or at least as comfortable as an adolescent is going to get. And sitting in these classrooms where a mere 10-15 of them get first-rate, college-level instruction, makes me feel grateful that I can provide this opportunity for my kid, and angry that we felt forced to go this way, because of the shitty public schools, as well as anger on behalf of the folks who can't afford it. Don't worry, I won't go off on a Berkeley liberal rant--especially when I'm taking the moneyed way out myself--but, man, fuck Proposition 13. It fuckin' ruined this state.

Anyway, while the contrast between my kid's school and my own would be a pronounced and painful one no matter what the year, this year is even worse because I am constantly getting spam reminders now that my 30th high school reunion is just around the corner! Thirty years. And yet a bear every traumatic scar from those years as if it was just last year. Kinda pathetic, really. The words "move on" come to mind. Yet I still have nightmares, real ones, about specific events or people, or the opposite--dreams in which this or that person and I are actually having a nice time together. Which doesn't feel a whole lot better somehow.

We're now almost done with Season 7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and being so late to the party on this, I'm a good half-decade behind all the astute analysis done by folks way smarter than me about the obvious, explicit metaphor that Joss Whedon and gang were operating under: that high school is hell. As it turns out, though some of us must battle those demons our entire lives, even decades later, in another city entirely. Some of us need constant reminders that that's all part of the past, that those demons can't get to us now.

I won't be going to my 30th high school reunion, by the way, much like I didn't go to the 5th, 10th, or 20th. Because, though one could argue I could go back in "triumph" (hey look at me now!), I honestly don't feel like I have anything to prove, for one thing, and, for another, the sad, more mundane truth is that I'd probably end up feeling just as left out as I did back in the day, no matter who I may be now or what I've accomplished. I'm happy with my life, and blessed with great family and friends, and a professional career I'm proud of, and, ya know, that's good enough for me. I have zero need to go back for some kind of empty "SEE!" moment, because, really, the only person I ever needed to convince in the first place was myself. No one else actually gave a shit, or maybe even knew anything was wrong.

I spent a little time recently on the web site of our reunion, and there are photos from all the reunions as well as some from our actual high school days in the 1970s. Throughout every decade, it's essentially all the same folks. You wouldn't know we had a class of over 300 (at least, I can't remember the exact count), because most of the photos are of the same cluster of yearbook kids, sports kids, drama kids, etc etc--which I honestly state with far less bitterness than it may sound. Actually, I had a great laugh, because one photo says it all. It's a photo of four kids, three girls and a boy. All of the girls are identified in the caption, but not only is the boy not identified, but it's not even acknowledged that there's an unidentified boy in the photo. It's as if he's not even there.

Yeah, that's right. That's a boy second from the right--blame the 1970s. And that boy is me. But to those who made this website, I'm unknown. I'm invisible. I'm not even worthy of saying I can't be identified. And man does that say it all.

Let's be clear here, however, lest this sound too much like a pity party. I don't believe my high school experience was necessarily any worse than anyone else's. On paper, in fact, and in person, to many of those around me at the time--I may have appeared to be doing fine. Sterling GPA (which got me into Cal Berkeley), 1st trumpet in the jazz band, managing editor of the school paper--typical nerd stuff. The problem, for me, again, was me. I was simply not equipped emotionally, did not have the right level of self-confidence, when the inevitable hazing came. And, hey, when you're a pimply, nearsighted, redheaded beanpole in the 70s, you need to be prepared to get hazed. It didn't help that in my case, the worst hazing of my life, the one that scarred me permanently, came from the boys that until that very moment I had considered my best friends, but, on the other hand, who doesn't have stories like that? My problem was that instead of getting angry at them, I internalized it, took it as truth, believed them, and then spent the next three decades trying to recover, and to realize that maybe I'm not a pathetic loser who doesn't deserve to have friends.. Almost every social situation I am involved in to this day--whether it's a work environment, party, family event, whatever--is still informed by that trauma, as sad and somewhat implausible as that sounds. And, yeah, you don't need to suggest therapy for me--that's been going on for decades, too. Wheee!

Again, let's not tune our tiny violins here. All is good. And, hey, I like my life and even know how to get angry at other people now! My point is that as good as things are now, the reunion has zero appeal to me, because I have nothing I want to reunite with.

Oddly enough, as I have been writing this, I heard, out of the blue, from one of my boyhood friends who I haven't been in touch with in over 30 years, who found me through that very reunion website. Synchronicity, dude! He's a guy who, like me, probably didn't have the greatest time back then. (Who knows--we boys didn't share our feelings.) And this is the kind of reunion I don't mind having. I've thought of this guy now and then over the past number of decades, wondering how he turned out. Did he get it together? Or did he end up as a psycho serial killer, exacting his revenge on those who tormented him? And it turns out he got it together just fine, just like I did, just like most people do. And it made me happy to know this. Not just a little happy, but a lot happy. Maybe those high school demons aren't so powerful after all.

And maybe someday I'll learn to remember that.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Twitter Conundrum.

I hate to say it, but it really does seem as though Twitter is a blog-killer. Case in point: Me. While it would certainly be a stretch (well, okay, a lie) to say that I was an active blogger, it's also true that I've been blogging far less since reluctantly jumping on that 140-character bandwagon.

I say "reluctantly" because it's true: I had to have a few folks clamoring at me before I buckled and did it. And my earliest tweets expressed that annoyance and bewilderment with this new trendoid communication tool. To use another fave of the moment: Really? This is how we're gonna talk now? It's seemed both pointless and self-indulgent to me, and if you want to argue that I was right, I'm not going to argue back. Twitter abuse is rampant: Tweeting when you really have absolutely nothing to say, or when you say something that has no context for anyone at all, like: "Huh." This doesn't mean that every tweet needs to be a 140-character mini-masterpiece, but it would help if you at least had some kind of point, however small. Not to put pressure on you, but realize that you are "publishing" your thoughts. Don't clutter up our feeds with "LOL." I'm happy, I guess, that you are laughing out loud about something, but if you're not going to let me in on the joke, too, well, then shut up about it. I end up un-following more people than I follow for this very reason. I don't demand that you entertain me, but if you're just sharing you're just blabbering away all day on Twitter as if you are talking to yourself, well, you can go ahead and do that without me, just to make it official.

Anyway, that's not really my point here. Sorry. My point is more this: That in my brain, I am always walking around, as writers are often wont to do, filtering everything I am seeing and hearing and feeling into something I can write about later. I'm always mentally filing things away. If someone says something stupid--like the co-worker who complained in Cologne a few weeks ago, in utter seriousness, that she was annoyed that the German restaurants all had their menus in German--I immediately flag that as something for future use.

The problem is that Twitter is now a fast, easy, low-maintenance, utterly accessible avenue for these moments that get caught in the net. I no longer have to stockpile them in my brain and then get the time and energy to write a whole blog post around them. Now, in seconds, right on my iPhone, I can blurt it out to you, instantaneously, without having to worry about form or context or writing many, many words. Actually, that's a bit of an oversimplification. Cramming something into 140-characters can be a bit of a challenge, and that's the part of Twitter that I like. It's an interesting exercise, trying to be funny in that little space. And some people (and I'm not including myself) are great at it. The best Twitter feeds, for me, are the ones that take a specific, funny angle, and stick to it, like the now justly famous @shitmydadsays.

But when I step back from it, like I am today, and look at what it's doing to me, it bums me out a little. I like that I can freely tweet throughout the day and hopefully provide a laugh or two, or a recommendation of some sort, or whatever the heck it is I do. But I don't like that it sort of saps my bandwidth, as well as material, that could be better put to use in actual longer-than-one-sentence writing. I'm not gonna get all Luddite about it, and decry it as The End of Everything. But it is an easy way out, and the lure of it, for someone predisposed to be lazy and easily distracted, like me, makes it a bit of a danger.

This entire post came into being, by the way, because I have been binging on Batman: Arkham Asylum the past couple days, and have fallen in love with it. As I kept getting further into this first-rate, thoroughly entertaining action game, starts strong and then gets better, part of me kept thinking, "I'm gonna stop playing for a minute and tweet about this." Actually it was more specific than that. What I wanted to tweet was: "Batman: Arkham Asylum may be the best single-player gaming experience I've had since Half-Life." And in thinking about tweeting that, I realized that that fundamental change had occurred in my brain: I was mentally noting things that I wanted to tweet rather than blog.

Previously, I would have been mentally writing an entire blog post about Batman: Arkham Asylum, in which I would try to justify and backup that statement. Tell you why Arkham Asylum is so great. Because all of those thoughts are in my head, too. But Twitter just lets me send it out there. I don't have to justify shit. And maybe, in some respects, that's cool, too. I get to make a bold statement. You can agree or disagree. If I were still a journalist, and not working at EA, Warner Bros/Eidos could even put that tweet right on the box.

But that's not what I got in this for. That's not what my brain and fingers have worked all these years at doing. It's easy and fun and accessible, but it's no substitute, or solution, for depth. That's not to say that I'm quitting Twitter. Ferget it. I'm still hooked on it. I'm just saying that this was a particular moment of clarity for me, and one that was going to take me way more than 140 characters to explain. So, see, I was forced to blog.

But, oh, while I'm here, I should probably say: Batman:Arkham Asylum may be the best-single player experience I've had since Half-Life. Maybe I'll blog about it sometime!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Together through life.

It's a pretty good sign that you've been away from your blog too long when spam starts appearing in the comments. Seriously, WTF? You've gotta be getting desperate for attention for whatever you're peddling to think that that's a good marketing strategy.

Anyway, yeah, I've been gone. I know you know. I've had incredibly itchy writing fingers for at least a week, but instead of actually putting them towards writing, I was applying them to the plastic guitar in Beatles: Rock Band, which didn't do anything for my writing skills, but sure was a lot of fun anyway. Oh, and my Sim in The Sims 3 wrote 5 science fiction novels in the time I've been away, too. So at least that guy got some writing done!

It's been a busy, crazy, difficult, and sometimes fun month. The Games Com convention in Germany was exhausting and at times just not even remotely fun (you try sitting in a small room without windows demoing a game to non-English speakers over and over and over for 8 hours!), but I'm still glad I went, if for no other reason that to see another city in another part of the world, which is always worth it no matter what. Cologne was quite pretty--the cathedral is stunning (despite a co-worker's LOL-worthy complaint that, "UGH, it's like there's one of these in every city in Europe!" Yeah, ya think?), looming over the mostly modern city (the original was mostly destroyed in WW2) like some giant, dark Gothic beast. And you can tell when a writer is out of practice when he writes a fucking horrible middle school creative writing sentence like that.

The other lowlight of Cologne was being forced into two dinners the first two nights first at an Indian restaurant, and then at a Japanese restaurant. Yeah, because neither of those cuisines are readily available in the Bay Area. And, hey, who doesn't go to Germany for the sushi! Thankfully, the next two nights were done right, at an outdoor beer garden, with schnitzel and beer and the warm summer air, which was exactly the kind of European experience I was craving, and which often makes me feel like sometime before I croak I really should live over there for awhile. Or maybe I can just buy a beret!

No sooner had I returned from Games Com than I was off again to the Penny Arcade (PAX) convention in Seattle. And, hey, if you're gonna go to another city in the US after a Europe trip, it might as well be Seattle, truly one of the cooler American cities, other than the fact that every third building seems to be a Starbucks. I've said this on more than one occasion now, but, with 13 years of gaming conventions under my belt, I can confidently say that this PAX--the first one I've attended--was the best convention I've ever been to. This is what E3 should be, or wishes it was: A celebration of the industry, a geeky lovefest for what we do and what we play and what we're into, devoid of cynicism and bored obligation. Credit the fans for making it that way--the ones paying to get in, flying in from around the world on their own dime cuz they WANT to be there, reminding those of us who get paid to do it that, hey, ya know, at root this is and always has been about providing people with entertainment.

Showing MySims Agents was an absolute joy this time, because those who came to see it--whether it was because they knew me from my press life or were fans of the franchise and had no idea who I was--stopped by because they were truly interested, not because it was their job to do so. And, hey, not that there's anything wrong with it being "your job to do so," because that was MY job until I came to EA. This isn't about bagging on the press. It's about interacting directly, eye-to-eye, with people who are there ONLY for the love, with no other agenda other than that gaming makes them happy. It may sound corny, but it's just utterly refreshing, and was actually contagious--just like the swine flu I picked up! When folks started lining up to get Tim Schafer's autograph on Brutal Legend posters, I snuck out of my booth and got in line right with them, caught up in an unexpected rush of goofy fanboyism.

Of course, the proverbial icing on the cake was the GFW Radio reunion, which was just an incredible blast, humbling and exciting and satisfying in so many ways--not to mention just being a serious ego boost. Because, hey, let's not be falsely modest: Having hundreds of people lining up, hours ahead of time, to hear you talk, is a fucking surreal and awesome experience, and is easily one of the highlights of my entire professional career to date. And even better was the feeling of being back together with those guys and, even with the obligatory moments of awkwardness, clicking again and finding that groove that made that podcast so fun to do. Because in the old days, all we were doing was trying to please ourselves. We knew no one was listening, and, at first, we didn't really want to be there anyway. So we just did stuff to amuse ourselves, riffing off other podcasts, websites, magazines, talking about the things that drove us crazy at our jobs, that embarrassed us as members of the gaming press, and just talking about all the same kind of random nonsense that we would throughout the day anyway. The fact that it DID ultimately catch on, over time, was a bonus for us--a surprising one at first, but one that we did become proud of, and that we tried to take ownership of, treating it as seriously as we would the magazine. And so when everything went to hell and we all started bailing out of there, it was GFW Radio just as much as GFW the magazine that we ourselves came to miss. Getting the opportunity at PAX to reunite for one more round was an honor and a thrill and went better than I think any of us dared to imagine. So thanks to ALL of you who went, or listened, or tried to get in, or whatever. We all felt, and feel, extremely lucky and grateful for that experience.

Of course, karma kicked in immediately after, as karma likes to do, and whomped me upside the head with the swine flu, which took me out of circulation for over a week. It's only now, really, that I feel fully rested and back to life and ready to contribute to society in a way other than coughing. I realize this blog post is completely meaningless and boring, but this one is more for me than for you. I'm just tryin' to get back on the horse here.

It's been a long summer, with big highs and serious lows. Frankly? I'm ready for Fall.