Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Letter to Those Just Out of the Nest Concerning the Iron Age

Dear fresh, unscarred faces of youth,

Ironing is a very unique experience. Of all the things in my life I've learned to do, nothing else really has held the dual nature of being so simple a concept, yet, so complicated a practice. It's all fine and good on paper. Just apply hot surface to wrinkled clothing. But, what those directions should stress is that you should apply the hot surface ONLY to wrinkled clothing. It's a subtle yet important variation of the standard ironing instructions, but, could have saved me some grief in the long run. I found that the mystical properties of dispelling wrinkles with this "magic handle" were so profound to me in the beginning, that I would forget that there are many objects and surfaces on Earth, and specifically in my home, that react quite adversely to having searing hot metal applied to them. Things like the door the ironing board is attached to, or the seat of an exercise bike, or my arm.

For some reason cotton, the result of a sharp and brittle PLANT, seemed to take the surface-of-Mercury heat in stride with no problem. But, the side of my nylon duffel bag? Shit. You'd think a tiny dragon had been held captive in it and decided its only means of escape was to make a hole in the side with its magical sulfur breath. I'm talking seconds and I'm holding the bag up, looking confusedly through a smoldering gash to the wall across the room, like I'm in a scene from Home Alone.

All I wanted to do was to iron on a patch over a part of the bag that had become frayed and weak. It wasn't until the smell hit my nostrils that I noticed the comical iron shaped hole that had been flame broiled right through the side of my favorite bag. I had a thought that was probably something like, "Christ, I've vaporized my poor yellow sack." Oh, if only the nylon had vaporized.

Deciding that the yellow plastic that had melted off my bag had, I don't know, teleported to another dimension, I guess, I tossed the bag aside and decided to iron something else. Luckily, before I pressed the iron down to my pants, I noticed where the nylon had actually got to. A golden brown film was hardening to the still hot surface of my little white bag murderer. Peeling it off was not unlike scraping the burnt cheese from a plate of nachos fresh from the microwave. That brought up a very good question that had never occurred to me in my entire life up to that point. How in the fuck to you clean an iron?

I was 22 years old. Up until a regular American male is 20, it never even really registers to him that he is going to USE an iron in his lifetime. So, with only a month or two into the journey of learning the mysteries of this strange device, now I had to figure out how to clean it up like new. I considered just buying a new one, but, I decided that the nylon bag incident was my typical M.O. when it came to being domestic, so, learning how to service and care for the tiny nuclear reactor was probably best.

I went and got a wet rag from the kitchen (the "only damp with tap water kitchen rag" being the grand champion of "cleaning shit" when you're just out of your teens) but when I got back to the iron I paused. I had just brought slightly warm water contained in cloth to clean a thing that injects "hell steam" straight through other kinds of cloth. It kind of felt like using a lead bar to clean a gun. So, I stood there, tilting my head in contemplation like my, then, young dog would tilt it's head and stare at the tree frogs on the other side of our sliding door. Probably wondering why a frog's ass feels exactly like smooth glass.

My mother was eventually called on the telephone.

"Mom, how does a mortal human clean an 'I Yurn'." I spoke as if reading "iron" off the side of the box in an attempt to subconsciously communicate to her that I was in way over my head. She politely responded that a human being can clean an iron with something called iron cleaner.

"Well, Christ," I said. "Why don't they name it something obvious?" Iron cleaner was purchased.

When I got home and opened it, I was greeted by a substance that I thought was what maybe toothpaste used to be like. In other words, it was just a beige paste. I don't know WHY I thought that it being beige meant that it was what olden times toothpaste looked like. Maybe, I just thought that everything used before I was born was sepia toned. I'm not proud of the way thoughts used to form in my brain.

So, now I had paste. But, do I slather it on the iron? Should the iron be cold? Surely, it should be cold. Although, heat is often an ingredient in cleaning things, and this thing sure gets pretty fucking hot. Maybe, I'm supposed to mix it with water first, or vinegar. Vinegar does stuff right? But, we didn't have any vinegar. Maybe, I spread it on the plate and let it set, then peel it off. Like it traps all the dirt in a crust.

Now, at this point, some of you might be thinking, "what did it say to do on the side of the tube?" Those people haven't been a 22 year old guy. Let's just say that this, what's happening above me, the process I went through years ago, if Jane Goodall had studied guys that had just gotten their first grown up job instead of chimps, there would be a chapter in her book called "Adult Males Disregard for Assistance in Simple Tasks". Some guy is standing in front of an ironing board right now, in his boxers, burnt tie in the garbage can, squirting iron cleaner out into his hands and forgetting that he hasn't unplugged it as his palm moves towards the sole plate.

Eventually, I came up with an idea that I thought was pure genius. I wouldn't put the cleaner ON the iron and scrub it with a cloth. I'd put the cleaner on a cloth, and scrub the cloth WITH the iron. I'd IRON the fucking thing clean! I squished out a heap of paste on an old towel and spread it around with my fingers a little bit. Then, I got the iron hot enough to go back in fucking time. It was full of water because I wanted lots of steam. The light went off letting me know that I had successfully preheated the device, and I pressed it into the goo on the towel.

Oh, what hissing! I jammed the button over and over again and steam filled the room as a metallic taste filled my mouth. I leaned into the iron and really scrubbed it against the towel, causing the ironing board to creak in disappointment. When I finally lifted it up, the towel was a horrid black smear, with a twinge of yellow and green to it. But, the bottom of the iron was pretty damn near cleaned. More paste squished, more hissing, more worry that I can taste pennies, but after a few rounds of that, I had a clean iron. All it cost me was one whole towel. Success!

Incidentally, this is STILL the method I use to clean irons.

Of course, all these trials an tribulations are just the natural process of young people learning how to get along in life as adults. Unfamiliarity with common household devices is going to cause some learning experiments with anyone. Especially when that device is a molten hot skillet they need to learn how to use in order to fit in with an adult world and workplace. Up until that point I had been relying on the dryer to get my clothes to a state where I might fool people into thinking I belonged in the office with them. All of those first mistakes where just that. Innocent, harmless mistakes.

It's not until that awkward period of domestication puberty passes that one really starts to realize that irons aren't just unwieldy, they're fucking evil little bastards. Tiny imps that live in your closet, waiting for you to become complacent with they're usefulness. Waiting. Until the perfect time to shatter the very fabric of your mind.

The first time I realized I had been double crossed by my little eggshell-white sadist was when I tried ironing a pair of jeans with fashionable rivets embedded in the corners of the pockets. All was five by five with the legs, as I had been ridding pant legs of wrinkles for a while by then, and I chose to go all out and iron the top as well. This is a move I would have never tried as a mere ironing beginner, but, that day I was feeling lucky and decided that my wife had been good to me over the years and she deserved crisp, flat pockets like everyone else.

There's something important to note about being burned by an iron. Half the time it isn't the iron itself doing the burning, but, the heat being transferred vicariously through an intermediary. The iron acts as a tiny godfather getting some out of luck and desperate stooge, like say a metal rivet, to do his dirty work for him so he's not directly culpable. So then when you get burned, and you WILL get burned, the surprise you experience from both the unlikely source, and the sudden intensity of the attack, will hot wire your brain so that your id and speech center, for a brief moment, are one in the same.

The usual patterns of speech that have gotten you through life as a social animal will revert into a state that will make you sound like a preschool teacher suffering from Tourette's. As soon as that freshly ironed denim decoration touched my skin the only thing I could force out of my mouth was, "son of a jelly donut cockbitchmotherfucker!"

When I looked down at my throbbing forearm I expected to see half of it missing, but instead, there was just a single, tiny, red dot. A Scarlett Letter for idiots. It felt so bad that I would have sworn the rivet was still against my flesh, branding me as property of the Levi Strauss corporation. Never did I think in a million years that the technology existed to condition a grown man to fear pants, but by golly, the iron is just that versatile. For weeks after the incident when wearing jeans I would physically cringe when I felt the metal from the pockets or buckle touch my bare skin. I was convinced that the slightest contact would cause my entire body to burst into flame, not unlike the fear a mouse holds that one of the feeder bars will give him a painful shock.

A month or so passed and I became complacent again. Convinced that the "roasting on a stick under the 30 foot flames of a thousand burning corpses in hell" style pain I experienced would subconsciously keep me from ever casually brushing a hot rivet again. I began to resume my friendly relationship with the iron. After all, he didn't burn me, the pants did. Just as he planned me to think all along. And, I wasn't that far off the mark when I thought that I'd never brush against hot metal again. That turned out to be mostly true. What I didn't take into account is that solid objects weren't the only thing these little shithead appliances can super heat.

The chosen battlefield for our next altercation was a pair of khaki cargo pants whose pockets had the tendency to get bent out of shape in the dryer. I laid the pants down on the board, delicately flattening them with the palm of my hand, and then proceeded to iron the flaps down against the pockets, like I had done a hundred times. That time one of the flaps was particularly mangled, no doubt paid to do so by little mister iron as a key element to my assassination attempt, and I had to use my index finger and thumb to hold the flap down while I ran the edge of the five thousand degree plate against it.

What the biggest bitch about this whole thing ended up being was that when I held that pocket down and started to push my Black and Decker killamajig towards my fingers, I was just SURE that I was going to be ironing a substantial part of my flesh into my pants. I just knew I was about to fuck up. But, I didn't. That part of the operation went perfect. The metal never made it to my fingers. But, the steam that built up between the folds of the pocket and then exited into my fingertips, THAT sure as hell hit its mark.

At first, I didn't even register the sensation of my hand being pressurized into vapor. I probably came around when the stump that was left of my arm thudded against the ironing board, I really can't remember. But, after a few seconds I was waving my hand like a beauty pageant winner with a head full of cocaine screaming such gems as, "Thomas Jefferson ditryhorseballhairs!" and "how to get to Sesame Street on icemothercockingdickbeards!"

If my wife hadn't been in the shower for the grand performance, I'm sure she would have thought that I was being possessed by a being of pure psychotic heat. As it worked out all she noticed was my trembling red fingers as I handed her a towel after her shower. She looked up at me and I nodded and managed to quietly whimper out the words, "god damn iron." Then she gave me a look like a park ranger gives a camper that has been feeding the bears. A look that says, "I'm sorry you got maimed, but, at the same time I'm not surprised."

Only having two major attacks on my person by the iron doesn't mean that those are the only times that that crazy bitch has made a play for my life. There have been plenty of attempted manslaughters that just weren't planned through enough by the arrow shaped fucker to be successful. There have been countless tip overs, more than a few cords wrapped around my legs, and a few times when the steam would just shut off forcing me to try different, dangerous methods of checking to make sure the fucking thing was still on.

This level of pure evil might be puzzling until you realize just what an iron is. They are devices filled with unholy incantations that some how mix elements that would normally be fatal together and make them useful. They mix water, metal, and electricity, and end up with something that's a tool instead of a trick used by someone to cause you to instantly explode when you touch it. They remove all the death part of the transaction on only leave moist heat and, on occasion, unimaginable pain.

The only reason I don't toss its sorry ass out in the garbage is that from my experiences in other homes and countless hotel rooms I've learned that all irons are the same or worse than mine. They are just spiteful, mean objects. They should sell them with a tiny riding crop and handcuffs, because, they don't only iron the pants, they make it abundantly clear that when you are using them, they are wearing the pants too.

Chiggie Von Richthofen

"This is a place where eternally
Fire is applied to the body
Teeth are extruded and bones are ground
Then baked into cakes which are passed around."
-Hell, Squirrel Nut Zippers

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Letter for Gamers Concerning the Other Letter for Gamers

Dear fellow gamers, uh, again,

I've actually written a letter about this before, about a year and a half ago, when I was having a crisis of self. It was possibly as polar opposite to the intention of this one as possible. Considering I'm actually thinking about collecting all of these together in a single volume in the future, the juxtaposition of these two within pages of each other will be particularly interesting, to me anyway. Since then, I've written other letters and thought about myself, a lot, and I think I've gained some perspective, and also realized that there are things about me that are too set in my DNA at this point to ignore or reject.

I just recently finished reading a book called Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. It was a book about successful people and how they got that way through environmental factors, good timing, family upbringing, etc. There's a lot to the book but one thing that jumped out at me while reading it was when he started talking about what makes a person a master at something, like a master pianist or professional pitcher and that kind of thing. He says that statistically there's a magic number of hours spent practicing their trade before they have truly begun to master their art. That number, apparently, is 10,000 hours. That's 10,000 hours spent trying to get better at something. That's a lot of hours.

Now, this book has caused me to think a lot about a bunch of things while I was reading it, but, this one idea really made me pause and think back on my life. What had I ever done for ten THOUSAND hours? I have dabbled with different instruments, but never enough to even remember the basics now. I've built things with my hands, worked on electronics, sewn, drawn, mixed music, but again, never for prolonged periods of time. I'm a person that kind of drifts in and out of projects as they are interesting to me, and gives up when they're not. Except for one activity. There is ONE thing that I'll do, and have done, pretty much every day, for hours a day, whether I particularly feel like it or not, whether I feel like I'm progressing or not, sometimes just to force myself to get better at it so when I do come back later I will have a better time because I've put a lot of blood and sweat into being just overall better at it: Gaming. I've easily put over ten thousand hours into gaming. At this point it would be an almost literal statement to say I've been playing video games my entire life. Gaming, fucking GAMING, is what I could be considered a master of.

At first you might think something like, damn dude, that's pretty pathetic, and you'd be right there along with my own feelings when I deduced this out on my own, with this book still on my lap talking about the Bill Gates' and Rockefellers of the world. Is this really what I've amounted to through a life's endeavor? Am I staring down the barrel of my 27th year on this Earth only to have the medal of "Master Gamer" pinned to my otherwise blank chest? Well, yes and no.

I mean, yes. Just yes. I don't have anything for the "no" part of that.

What I've decided is, yes, I'm getting the master gamer medal, but, that maybe this isn't such a ridiculous thing to have earned. No, I'm not a master guitarist, and I could have been at this point, in the way that I could have been anything with enough work. I'm not a master chef or a master carpenter or blah, blah, blah. I'm not saying I couldn't have been other things that are, socially, viewed as more accomplished. What I am saying is, I'm statistically considered a master at SOMETHING. And, something I love, at that. I can't turn back time and stop myself from becoming obsessed with Wolf 3D and Super Mario and TMNT (for the NES) so, what the hell, let's get my awards party started! Look at me, everybody, I'm a MASTER! Where's my fucking medal! Pin it on me! Pin it on and gaze in envy all you NON-masters out there!

I figure that what's done is done, and what I'm doing I'll probably keep doing for a while. So, feeling shame over a life time of achievement, just because it doesn't achieve something that people, or maybe even I, find important, is just unneeded stress on top of everything else that life crams up my ass and lights on the 4th of July. It would be, and has been, counter productive, nay, destructive to my own psyche and self esteem to regret the gaming lifestyle I've had at this point. It's too deeply ingrained, too woven into almost every major moment.

I grew up in a house miles away from the nearest kid. I couldn't ride my bike to my buddies' houses or down to a movie theater. Outside I could run around by myself or make the 2 or 3 mile hike down to a convenience store for a coke, which always involved a lot of thinking on the way there and back. It's not really surprising that video games would become a huge part of the way I spent my free time. That and a tech savvy dad that showed up less and less as I got older and older meant that gifts of the computer entertainment nature were plentiful. A 386 when I was 5, and Atari around the same time. Later an NES, then SNES, then Playstation, then N64, then XBOX, then 360. Not to mention an ever upgrading computer, Gameboy advance, GBASP, and DS. Those last eight things I mentioned being things that I actually had to work and earn money to buy myself. On top of that lets not forget the runners up. The Tiger Handhelds, the electronic pocket black jack and poker, the Lights Out, the Simon, and probably another 50 objects that want you to push buttons when lights and sound happen.

I can almost carbon date myself by the gaming accomplishments I've had. In fact, a lot of times I can't remember dates or years when I knew a certain person or was in a certain grade of school, but, I can remember what I was playing when I was doing those things.

I remember the first time I had a crush on a girl and couldn't ever find the courage to tell her. 1989? 1991? 1992? Hell, I don't know. It was Wolfenstein 3D. I honestly couldn't tell you the year unless I had a year book. But, I can tell you, for sure, that when I had a crush on her, it was Wolfenstein 3D.

Last time I hung out with my grade school friends before we all went off to middle school? Nineteen ninety-I have no fucking idea. It was Donkey Kong Country, I remember it vividly.

The first time I was beaten savagely by a bully. Outrun, arcade with moving seat.

Meeting one of my best friends, still to this day, in middle school. Virtua Fighter.

The first time I visited England since I lived there as a child. Area 51, the light gun arcade version. That one is especially vivid because I BEAT the arcade while I was there, on vacation, while my dad sat in a pub wondering what the hell the big deal was, AND, I did it using both the first and second player light guns at the same time, one in each hand, can I get a hell yes!

My first internet girlfriend that broke up with me because I wasn't religious. Quake 1.

The first time I had sex while playing a game at the same time with a much, much better girlfriend. Goldeneye 64.

Posting a front page article, on a prestigious gaming website, about that time I was savagely beaten by a bully in a skating rink. Splinter Cell: Double Agent.

In high school, while I was practicing my own take on Buddhism (otherwise known as NOT Buddhism. It was more like 3 parts sleep deprivation, 2 parts Buddhism, and 1 part watching Fight Club all the time) I got closest to feelings of pure Zen during our 2-3 day Quake 3 tournaments. The zoning out required to sustain your skill and sanity in a 5 hour long Instagib match is probably the closest I've ever felt to enlightened.

When I went to college and my friends had all moved, I met a guy there through a social club, and my mom. I was going to leave the mom part out because it makes the rest of this sound like we started dating, but, I want to be accurate so there it is. We hit it off and started hanging out, but what I think really clinched the friendship was when I asked him to come over to my house and help me beat Halo on legendary. I just needed him to stand there and follow me around, but, after I saw the secret ending we actually started playing the game together from the beginning. Fast forward to a cold November night and we're standing in front of a Gamestop together, near the apartment we shared with my girlfriend, waiting to get our midnight release copies of Halo 2. Fast forward again and it's a warmer night at a Gamestop across town, near the house he shared with me and my wife, and now we're waiting for Halo 3. Fast forward yet again and he pre-orders Halo ODST from his laptop in his apartment and I pick it up after launch from a Walmart on my lunch break because it's stupid to stand outside a store in the middle of the night. I play games with that guy pretty much every single fucking day. We've played almost every major release together since he bought and XBOX and Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow. He's my best friend. And, I can't help but give Halo a lot of the credit for that.

And it's not just the gift of friendship that gaming has given me over the years. There are some real moments of pride in there too. I remember things about gaming in my life that, to me, were defining moments. I remember sitting on the easy chair I used to keep in my room in high school. This chair was for watching TV, playing games, sleeping, eating, writing, listening to music, and if I had had my way with the plumbing, other things as well. So, I'm sitting in my chair, and all my friends are gathered around shooting the shit and I'm playing Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3. I loved this game. It was a sordid affair that I will always keep near to my heart. One of my friends even commented about how I spend a, probably, unhealthy amount of time playing a skateboarding game while my actual skateboard sits gathering dust against the wall with me barely still able to stay up right on it, on a good day.

The conversation rolls around the room among the teenage boys as those conversations do. Lots of colorful metaphors about my penis size and whether I like to use my tiny penis on men or animals. This somehow leads to one of the girls in the room (my girlfriend's best friend) jumping up and sitting down hard on my left arm, pinning it to the chair so that my fingers couldn't reach the controller. I smiled and looked up at her and put the controller on my knee, stretched my free hand out like a spider and just kept playing.

Suddenly, it wasn't about how I wouldn't be able to sexually satisfy the family dog. It was more like, "holy shit you can play that with one hand?" It took about ten seconds for them to start shouting out things like, "grind across that fence" and "do a benihana!" We weren't thinking about how this was an utterly ridiculous skill to have cultivated, we were caught up in the "mighty ducks comeback" moment that was me continuing my amazing run in the face of disability. Even I, for some reason, wasn't all that focused on how my left arm was being pinned down under the warm, young ass of a teenage girl. And, really this is just me hoping here, I don't think my girlfriend was even thinking about that whole ass firmly against my body thing either.

The point I'm trying to make is that when somebody is good at something, it's attractive to other people. We like to watch people do things that we didn't think were possible, even if the only reason it should be impossible is because no one should ever spend time getting good at it. It's that universal attraction to skill that makes me feel like this wasn't a lifetime worth of wasted energy. Gaming isn't something I chose from a list of reputable careers. Gaming was something that I fell into, and loved, and wanted to be better at. I felt good, and I still feel good, when I overcame obstacles in hard games. I feel better than other people who can't do it, and I don't have tell those of us that have been lucky enough to beat someone at something, that feeling superior than your peers is one of the best things in the world. Frankly, at this point, I've put so much time and energy into it, that if I WASN'T good at video games, THAT would be pathetic.

Reacting to artificial stimuli has been the one constant throughout my entire life. I built skills around it, created fantasies about it, built friendships based on mutual love for it, published stories about it, and all around just came to make room for it, no matter what, no matter where I ended up in my life.

I can't say it's always made sense to me, my obsession with gaming, and sometimes I get just outright depressed because I think I've wasted my life on useless frivolity. But, I don't stop. And, not like a "just one more hit man", or "I'll quit tomorrow" kind of don't stop. It's just that I never lose interest. New games always seem so fun and exciting. I find myself, over and over again, eager to be engrossed in the new puzzles and environments that other like minded people have created for me. When you boil it down, I'm just excited to explore the worlds created by others. Just the same as when someone looks forward to a new book by a favorite author, or a new movie by a favorite director.

Those being two things I ALSO do. Gaming isn't my entire life. I don't want you to get that impression. But without gaming, there wouldn't be a me, as he is now, in all his glory and studliness. I love movies, I love comics, I love books, I love TV, and I LOVE music. I used to think that the sum of those loves outweighed my love for gaming and that made me a well rounded person, but, that's a stupid way to quantify an existence. It's making justifications and excuses because I felt guilty about the video games. At the same time finding in those same games the only real sense of triumph and accomplishment I might have ever felt in my lifetime.

There's been some great times in my life. I got paid for some short stories. I got married to my high school sweetheart. I put a car in a controlled slide before I got my license. I've done unspeakable things in movie theaters. I went to Paris with my wife (ah, Paris). But things like that are few and far between in life. In real life. But, in the virtual worlds, with the buttons under my thumbs, Brothers and Sisters I can feel a small part of that excitement and pure joy every day of my waking life. I don't have to get high, I don't have to get arrested, I don't have to get a disease, I just have to play. We just have to play, and everything will be alright.

I've gone back and forth about that idea before, and I might go back and forth about it again, but I can't imagine ending up anywhere other than right back here, eventually, every time, because, as much as I want to be the kind of person that has done some really great non-gaming things, it's just not going to happen. I can't change the past. So, I might as well stick with trying to be happy with me: a person that has done some really great gaming things. I mean just an awesome guy. He really is the best.

Chiggie Von Richthofen

"It'll all click when the mortgage clears.
All our fears will disappear.
Now you got to bed, I'm staying here.
I've got another level that I want to clear."
--Cells, The Servant