Sunday, July 4, 2010

how i learned to stop worrying and not love WoW

on the first-ever boat on the Turalyon server from Menethil Harbor to the Howling Fjord, November 12th, 2008

Sometime around a year ago was the last time I logged into World of Warcraft.

My history with the game goes back to the first week it was live to the general public, in December 2004. Despite my love of computer games, especially role-playing games, I had never played an MMO (massively multiplayer online game) before. Not Everquest, not Dark Age of Camelot, not Star Wars Galaxies, nothin'. But for whatever reason, I wanted to give World of Warcraft (WoW) a spin.

For the next year and a half, WoW became my primary hobby. The game was more fun and addictive than I had even imagined. At first, I wasn't that enamored with the idea of interacting with and teaming up with other players, or joining a "guild," which just sounded silly. But within a month or so, I was making friends and could also see the advantages of working cooperatively with other players. And a couple of months after that, I had actually started my own guild. Quelle suprise!

But in mid-2006, I quit the game. There were two major factors:

(1) Being a GuildMaster (GM) was wearing me out. In those pre-Burning Crusade days, you needed forty - count 'em, forty - players to do endgame raiding and advance in the game. At first, our tiny, happy guild kept losing players who would join up with us to learn the game and level their characters, then as soon as they hit level 60 (the pre-BC cap), depart for a "raiding guild" so they could get cool stuff and continue progressing in the game. So then I and the other guild leaders decided that we should try to become an endgame-type guild, so we stepped up recruiting and formed a partnership with another guild to get the forty people we'd need to raid Molten Core and beyond.

While this was the only decision we could make if we wanted to be more than a happy fun leveling guild, it went all Treasure of the Sierra Madre in a hurry, especially after we stated taking out Molten Core bosses and having good stuff to divvy up. People argued about the loot reward system. Touchy personalities jostled for key positions like main tank, puller, and raid leader. People bitched about not being on the raid list even though these same people failed to sign up in a timely fashion. And, most weirdly, a lot of folks who had carped endlessly about us not doing endgame content would make themselves unavailable or be playing alts during our endgame raids. So performing this balancing act became a big ol' dose of No Fun every weekend, and my hobby was no longer bringing me pleasure.

(2) My girlfriend at the time hated WoW. Or rather, she hated me playing it. (Her young adult son also played, and she didn't seem to mind that.) Never mind that it was a long-distance relationship, so it wasn't like she was coming home to me leading a party around Blackrock Depths while dishes piled up in the sink. Or that I never took away any time that I could spend with her and gave it to the game - in fact, I'd drop everything at the prospect of a phone call or visit. In the end, I think she viewed WoW as a competitor for my attention, even though it really was no competition for her at all.

But anyway, #1 and #2 combined to suck all the joy out of a great game, so I finally put my account on hold and left the game entirely in May 2006.

During the next thirteen months, the tempestuous long-distance relationship ran its stormy course, and in April 2007, I began dating the woman who'd become my second wife. In June of that year, my youngest sister and I took a trip to Dallas. She brought with her a belated birthday present: World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, the first expansion for the game. She and her husband had gotten hooked on the game in 2006, around the time that I was quitting, and the gift came with the caveat that I would be reactivating my account and moving my upper-level characters to her server.

I had some trepidations about playing again, especially since I had just started a new, promising relationship, and had just exited a relationship where the game caused problems. But I took the unexpected gift as a sign that I should just go with what life was handing me, so I jumped right back in as soon as I returned from the Dallas trip.

And the results were nothing but good. Now WoW time became family time, and I got to connect with my youngest sister, my brother-in-law, and to a lesser extent, my oldest sister and her long-time boyfriend by playing the game. I also think I managed to balance work, WoW, and my healthy new not-long-distance relationship. My new girlfriend was a chef and had a job where she generally worked from 2 PM through 10 or 11 PM five days a week. I only played WoW on evenings when she worked, and this seemed to satisfy all parties. My sister's guild was very reminiscent of my old happy fun guild: mostly nice, smart, fun folks who were good company in guild chat and made playing the game worthwhile. Plus she and two other folks were the co-guild masters, so the burden of leadership wasn't mine and I could feel free just to play.

This situation prevailed through my girlfriend and I both losing our jobs within the space of a couple of months in 2008, us moving in together and getting married, and me getting a new job in retail in October 2008. The retail job was supposedly a day shift joint, but from late 2008 through the first half of 2009, it turned out to be mostly closing shifts (2:30 or 3:30 PM through 11 PM or 12 AM). So I ended up playing on off-days, or, on work days, from breakfast until I had to get ready to leave for work, and super late night when I was back from work and too wired to sleep. My wife was usually asleep or close to it by the time I'd get home at night, so, again, the game took little or no time away from the two of us.

So why'd I leave WoW a year ago if I was having such a great time playing? Strangely, it wasn't intentional per se, it just kind of happened. Around this time last year (July 2009), my work schedule changed and I began working days as promised, instead of nights. One of my initial thoughts was, honest to goodness, "hurrah! Now I can have more time for WoW - I can raid every night instead of just certain ones!" Seriously, I thought this would lead to me spending more time in Azeroth, and the prospect delighted me.

However, what actually happened was this: My wife and I were suddenly on the same schedule for the first time ever. Every night, we were having dinner together and spending the evening watching TV and talking to each other, like a couple ought to be doing.

Suddenly, playing WoW didn't seem nearly as attractive. I really thought during those first few weeks that the next day would be the day I'd get the itch and log back in, knock out a big batch of daily quests, and reconnect with my WoW friends.

Weeks and months went by, and that day never came.

I feel the need to add that none of this came from spousal pressure, explicit or implied. My wife has always been cool with the game, and we always worked together to plan around scheduled in-game events like guild raids. (Before you can ask: She has zero interest in WoW and would never ever be interested in playing it, alongside me or not.) The only time we even had words about WoW was one Saturday or Sunday when she and I were supposed to go run some errands in the late afternoon, and a Stratholme jaunt turned into a crazy revolving-cast all-day thing and I lost track of time. Day turned to night without me even noticing, and if I were on the other end of that, I'd be a little steamed too. I'm completely sure that if tomorrow I decided to start playing again, she'd be fine with that, wish me well, and help me maximize my time there.

Anyway, as you've seen, this post isn't a fanatical screed about the addictive nature of MMOs and how they destroy your "real life." My 2007-2009 return to WoW was rewarding and fun, and I enjoyed almost every minute in the game, especially spending time with distant family and building new relationships. Having fun and being with people you like is as "real" and "worthwhile" as it gets, and WoW provided massive quantities of both for me.

However, something even more worthwhile is an evening at home on the sofa with the wife and puppies. And I'm not willing to take time away from that, at least not now. I miss flying around Northrend trying to beat jackass thieves to herb and mine nodes, and evenings of endless in-jokes in Naxxramas, but right now I'm exactly where I need to be.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

a hunka hunka

My maternal grandfather was born in 1908, and he grew up in a world that was far less, um, ethnically sensitive? (I hate the term "politically correct.") To him, the Caucasians of the world could be divided into the following groups:
  • Englishmen
  • Tallys (Italians)
  • Germans
  • The French
  • Hunks
That last category not only took in actual Hungarians, but all the Central and Eastern European ethnicities that didn't fit one of the other four categories. Czech? Slovene? Serb? Pole? Yup, all "hunks." I don't remember him mentioning Scandinavians or inhabitants of the Low Countries, but he was a very smart man who definitely knew his geography, so I think they would have been "Dutch" or "Danish" or what have you rather than subsumed into the "Hunk" category.

I hasten to add that my grandfather never made any claims that any of these groups was superior or inferior to any other in any way. Our corner of the West Virginia coalfields wasn't one of those distressingly homogeneous places that you find so often in central Appalachia; instead, it was a real melting pot. Folks from all over the U.S. and western Europe had been recruited to work the mines from their opening in the 1880s though World War II, which gave eastern McDowell County, WV, a passel of first-generation immigrants back in his day, not to mention a majority African-American population that persists through the present. (We had a lot of coke ovens. Working them was the hottest, most degrading task around the mines, and mine owners recruited blacks from the American South for those jobs.) My grandfather was born there and worked as a carpenter for the mines, so he worked alongside all kinds of folks, and was a friend to them all, rather than being some Archie Bunker troglodyte.

But I explain too much. The point, and I do have one, is that the word "hunk," to me, growing up, denoted "person of Central or Eastern European descent." Then, around 1980, I remember hearing Tom Selleck being described - I think maybe by Sarah Purcell on Real People - as "a hunk."

Sure, my grandfather said "hunk," but even at age 12 or 13, I realized that doing that kind of thing was part of the past, and I couldn't help but be puzzled why Tom Selleck being whatever he might be - with that mustache, some sort of Balkan or Russian background certainly seemed likely* - was relevant. It took me running into the term as applied by the media to "beefcakey-lookin' guy," and to ones that didn't sport facial hair straight outta Sarajevo, a few more times for the context to become apparent.

But yeah, for a while there in 1980, I was genuinely puzzled as to why these muscular guys the women were fawning over were all of Central European descent.

*I just Googled to find out Mr. Selleck's ethnic background, and turns out that Tom's dad is of Rusyn ethnicity, i.e., a Ukranian/Carpathian minority. So I guess both Sarah Purcell and my grandfather would have been on the money. I also discovered that the term "hunk" to describe "sexually attractive male" goes back to the 1940s, when it appears first in Australian slang, then in "jive talk." But I sure don't remember it being bandied about until c. 1980.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

now i don't have my ph.d.

or, reason #1,375 why grad school might not have been for me

I've blogged before - either at my old MySpace blog, or here, or both - about how there's a non-stop jukebox in my head. There's always a song playing, and it's usually triggered by something in my environment, even if I'm not conscious of it at the time. For example, as an undergraduate, one afternoon I was wondering why the Hoodoo Gurus' "Dig It Up" was in repeat mode in my head, and then I realized that earlier that day in my 200-level British and American Literature class, we'd read and discussed John Donne's "The Relic."

WHEN my grave is broke up again
Some second guest to entertain,
—For graves have learn'd that woman-head,
To be to more than one a bed—
And he that digs it, spies
A bracelet of bright hair about the bone,
Will he not let us alone,
And think that there a loving couple lies,
Who thought that this device might be some way
To make their souls at the last busy day
Meet at this grave, and make a little stay?

Hoodoo Gurus:
My girlfriend lives in the ground
My friends ask why she's not around
She won't come home
I'm so alone (you'll never know!)
You can't bury love
You've gotta dig it up

So yeah, it's a musical word association game in my head pretty much 24/7.

Anyway, in my first year of graduate school at Vanderbilt, one of the books we were assigned for a Colonial American History class was Patricia U. Bonomi's Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America. It was a very good book, but that's beside the point.

My point is, and I do have one, that while I am unsure how Ms. Bonomi pronounces her surname, whenever I saw or thought about her name, the only thing could possibly go through my head was:

U-bon-o-mi! U-bon-o-mi! U-bon-o-mi! U-bon-o-mi!
....Now I guess I'll have to tell 'em
That I got no cerebellum
Guess I'll get my Ph.D.
I'm a teenage U Bonomi!

This probably explains a lot about why I never finished my grad school education. Vanderbilt, so much to answer for.

Friday, May 14, 2010

the guy in the wheelchair

When I first moved to Nashville in 1988, it was to attend grad school at Vanderbilt. For those first two years in Nashville, my now-ex and I lived in an apartment in Lewis House, a nondescript dormitory on the south side of Vanderbilt's campus. At the time, Lewis House was all grad student housing, whereas its twin across the commons, Morgan House, and all the smaller, cooler-looking buildings strewn around the commons were homes to the overprivileged (i.e., Vandy undergraduates, or as I quickly dubbed them, VandyKids™).

Anyway, one of our fellow Lewis House residents was a young man who was confined to a wheelchair. I never knew his name or story. He looked very fit and muscular, so I always wondered if he had only recently suffered an injury that put him in the wheelchair. He was not an amputee; both of his legs were present and accounted for.

In fact, the only thing I discovered about him during that first year at Vanderbilt was that you couldn't please the guy. Our only interactions were passing each other coming and going at the elevators and exterior doors of the building. The first time I encountered him, I held the door open for him. He swiveled his head toward me, looked me in the eye, and absolutely glowered at me.

"OK," I thought, "so he doesn't want any help with the door. He wants to do things for himself. That's cool."

So next time we ran into each other at the building's exit, I didn't hold the door open for him.

The result? He swiveled his head toward me, looked me in the eye, and absolutely glowered at me.

So what was I supposed to do? For the rest of that year (he wasn't around the second year I spent at the dorm), I defaulted to leaving him be and gave him as wide a berth as possible in an attempt to avoid another soul-scorching stare from the guy.

Even 22 years later, part of me is still angry at this guy, which worries me about myself. I mean, I get his anger, as much as I can. If I was in a wheelchair, particularly if I was young, good-looking, and athletic, and whatever put me in the chair had just happened, or hell, if it happened to fat fortysomething me tomorrow, I could well be angry at everyone and everything in my path. So yeah, guy was pissed, and understandably so.

But all I wanted from him was to know what to do. Hold the door open? I'm cool with that. Let him get it for himself? I'm cool with that too. But he needed to pick one, damn it!

See, I'm still mad. What I really ought to be taking away is that I'm fortunate that I can amble around on my own two legs and don't have to live my life burdened by a head full of trouble that I visit upon strangers and friends alike.

Instead, I'm still fixed in time at that door 22 years ago, flabbergasted that the guy in the wheelchair won't tell me what I need to do - or not do - to help him, even though the answer was almost certainly "nothing."

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

accepted stroke, left

Tonight I went with friends - my America-tourin' out-o'-town pal Anna Borg, and Lisa McGuire, who's local but with whom I hadn't hung out in an embarrassingly long time - to see Julian Casablancas, aka "That Strokes Guy," at the Cannery Ballroom.

I know, you're used to detail-filled concert reviews, but in this case, I'm not the man to provide one. I owned the first Strokes album for about a minute, wasn't thrilled with it, sold it, and haven't kept up with the Strokes or Strokes-related things since. Setlist? Not when I don't know the songs!

Actually, none of us fortysomethings were really expecting much of anything. We were mostly just looking for something fun to do together, it seemed like the best entertainment option available tonight, and Lisa could get us in for free. Winner!

Anyway, if anyone wants to know where the hipster doofi of Greater Nashville were tonight, it was at the Julian Casablancas show. In fact, tonight I had the revelation that I listen to Old Person Music, because I realized that the hemlines at the shows I usually attend are no longer nearly as short as those sported by even the most conservative young women at tonight's festivities. So I guess I also no longer listen to Short Skirt Music, since I don't see them anymore when I go out.

I also wasn't prepared for how LOUD the show was! I wore earplugs to almost every show in the '90s, but hearing loss plus the fact that I listen to Old Person Music in small clubs had led me to abandon the practice with no discernible ill effects. But tonight, the sound was so loud that I could barely hear all the songs I didn't know.

Anyway, That Strokes Guy played That Strokes Song - actually very early, three songs in - plus some other songs that are probably from his recent solo album. The crowd was enthusiastic, bopping and singing along between trips to the bar for more PBR.

That Strokes Guy also played a faithful cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark." When it first started, I thought "huh, he's playing a song that sounds like... wait a minute, IT IS!" And to close the regular set, he played "I Wish It Was Christmas Today," the latter-years Saturday Night Live yuletide staple (Anna recognized it long before I did). I would have been even more amused if he had covered Courtney Love's "But Julian, I'm a Little Older Than You."

Still haven't quite figured out what That Strokes Guy was wearing, and we also didn't figure out if he was bored or if that's just the way he rolls, super mumbly and hanging on to the microphone stand for dear life. His band did rock out effectively, and the crowd was eating it up, so he was indeed able to connect successfully to the Short Skirt/Hipster Doofi demographic.

After we felt like we'd seen enough and were tired of standing up - after all, we are consumers of Old Person Music - we prepared to exit at what we thought was an early departure point, but it turned out to be the end of the regular set! We were out of the building by the time the encore(s?) started, beating the crowd to the exits and returning across the Cumberland unhindered by traffic. Having observed Hipster Doofi in their natural habitat, we were relieved to be back to our homes and cats and physical media before midnight. It was a great evening mostly because of the company, but That Strokes Guy didn't hurt it either.

(Photo courtesy Lisa McGuire; title reference courtesy Game Theory)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

sweet cream of jesus

When I was in high school, if one of our athletes had muscle aches and pains, the remedy our teams used was an analgesic cream. While I was merely the statistician for our basketball teams, and only played baseball my senior year (and even then, not often and not well), I spent a large chunk of my extracurricular time involved with our athletic programs. And the distinctive aroma of this product - somewhere between ammonia and Ben-Gay - still wafts across all of my high school sports memories.

I had remembered two things about this substance besides its smell, only one of which turns out to be true:

  1. It was called "Creamogesic."
  2. Most of our players inevitably called it - and they weren't joking, they really thought it was the actual name - "Cream of Jesus."
Misunderstanding the name kind of makes sense. Jesus healed the sick. Why wouldn't a cream named after Him miraculously cure your inflamed bicep? I can still remember basketball star Antonio Martin, who had a notoriously balky knee even as a junior, always calling out for the "Cream of Jesus." Jesus-infused or not, the ointment helped Antonio lead Northfork High School to the West Virginia AA final in '82-'83 and to a championship in '83-'84, so maybe it did have that saviouriffic touch.

Since those days, I had tried to Google "Creamogesic" a few times, with no success, but for some reason, I found it today. I also found out why I hadn't stumbled upon it earlier: I had misremembered the name. Turns out that it's Cramergesic, a product of (surprise!) Cramer Sports Medicine.

Despite my surprise at discovering that I too had goofed on the name, this makes Cramergesic's etymological transformation into Cream of Jesus even more amusing to me, since it involves misinterpretation of both halves of the product name.

Even though it turned out to be merely Crameriffic, this sports cream will always have a heavenly glint for me, especially when I look at those two West Virginia State Basketball Tournament plaques on my wall. Can't tell me that there wasn't divine intervention involved.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

the secret of a happy marriage, as determined by me at approx. age 9

My mom and dad divorced, acrimoniously, when I was six years old.

I certainly wasn't one of those classic "kids of divorce" who went around thinking it was their fault. I didn't believe that for a minute! But thinking ahead even then, I desperately want to figure out what had gone wrong with their marriage. That way, when I became an adult and entered a relationship, I could avoid the pitfalls that ultimately drove my parents apart.

Unfortunately for me, there wasn't a lot of information about their troubles to help me out. My dad and mom were rarely together under the same roof (yes, I see as an adult how that in itself was a huge issue), and I don't remember seeing them fight when they were, so I completely lacked observational data.

"Why not ask your mom?", you might say. Well, my mom ain't one to be talking about that. She rarely brings up anything about my father or their relationship. Even now, 37 years after the divorce, it still hits a nerve for her. Since we live 400 miles apart and see each other rarely, our time together is precious, and I certainly don't bring up my dad or the divorce unless absolutely compelled to do so. And when I was a kid, under the same roof? No way was I going to cause her pain or antagonize her. So I didn't ask, and and she didn't tell.

But one day, out of the blue, she volunteered something. It was the first thing she had ever confided in me about their troubles. And it was this:

She and my father had fought about which way to put the toilet paper roll on the holder.

I held onto this piece of information like it was gold during a recession. I vowed to myself that when I got married, I would find out which way my spouse preferred the toilet paper to go, and that's how it would go, forever and ever, amen. To my little kid mind, this small bit of spousal consideration would ensure that my marriage would succeed where my parents' had failed.

As it turned out, my first wife did not have a preference. Perhaps our willy-nilliness when it came to putting toilet paper on the roller symbolized larger inconsistencies in how we conducted our lives, or violated some basic feng shui tenet, since she and I ended up splitting.

Mandy and I have had no toilet paper incidents thus far, but it occurred to me the other day that we really haven't faced this crucial relationship hurdle yet. "How can that be?" you ask. "Haven't you guys been together for nearly three years? Surely you use toilet paper and not corncobs or the Sears-Roebuck catalog, unless you carry on your West Virginia outhouse customs?"

Why yes, Dear Reader, Mandy and I have been together for nearly three revolutions around Old Sol. Nevertheless, we have not had to broach this issue, because our tiny bathroom in our tiny house does not have a toilet paper holder. Instead, we have one of those free-standing roll-holder dealies, where you can stack three rolls on top of each other.

So the number one most important pressing concern for any cohabitating couple, as determined by me from the evidence I gathered as a child, has never come up. If Mandy and I move to a new place next year and get divorced not long after, you'll know that it was an Under-Over marriage, and ne'er the twain shall tolerate each other for long.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

tin ears and tin mines

or Reason #2,317 why I'm not a musician

When I watched the telecast of the Grammy Awards Sunday night, Taylor Swift's performance was actually my favorite of the evening. Yeah, it wasn't studio perfection, but Ms. Swift exuded lots of charm and enthusiasm, seeming genuinely glad to be on stage not only performing bits of two original songs, but exuberant that she got to sandwich them around Fleetwood Mac's "Rhiannon" with Stevie Nicks herself joining Ms. Swift onstage. (And, for that matter, Stevie Nicks sticking around to contribute backing vocals and tambourine to "You Belong With Me.")

So after the broadcast, when I did what any self-respecting person does immediately after a major TV event - check my Facebook live feed - I was shocked to see comment after comment about how Taylor Swift cannot sing. This was particularly common among my many musician friends, who responded en masse like dogs gathering around the source of a sound that only they could hear. "Pitchy." "Butchering 'Rhiannon.'" "Atrocious." Status after status, comment after comment, the pros and accomplished amateurs had nothing but bad things to say about Hendersonville's Own and the pain that her attempted warbling had put them through.

But really, was Taylor Swift's performance that horrendous? My own initial impression, as stated above, was favorable. Sure, I didn't think she was note-perfect, but I thought she was well within acceptable parameters for live singing. But suspecting that over 50,000,000 musicians on Facebook can't be wrong, I watched the performance again today via YouTube, listening with very critical ears this time.

And... ok, she was perhaps more off than I thought she was initially, but no way was it even close to the crazy bad disaster that I keep hearing about. From all the commentary, you'd think this was a trainwreck on the level of Roseanne Barr or Carl Lewis attempting "The Star-Spangled Banner." Even after relistening, I think Taylor Swift's performance was not only genuine, open, and fun, but was hardly the affront to professional singing that everyone else seems to think. In fact, I think she got stronger as the performance went on, and she brings things home in fine style with suitable shadings of vulnerability during "You Belong To Me."

But then again, I'm almost certainly not the best judge. Even though I love music beyond almost anything else, I have known since at least junior high that I lack the natural skills that real musicians exhibit without even trying. In umpteen years of playing piano and trumpet (I abandoned both when I graduated from high school), I was always a slave to the sheet music. I rarely could play anything by ear. To this day, I can't tell you what chord is being played, or what key a song is in. If you asked me to sing a "middle C," I probably couldn't. I'm not tone deaf, at least according to the definitions I've read and the online tests that I've taken, but I'm pretty sure I'm not musician material.

Nevertheless, I still opine that this is a good performance. And thanks to YouTube, you can be your own judge: