Thursday, January 28, 2010

Sayonara, Salinger

Enigmatic author J.D. Salinger died today at 91.
I first read “The Catcher in the Rye” in high school at a turbulent time in my life. The book’s dull maroon cover and yellow colored title made it appear like a bland paperback, something trivial and dull. When I read the book, I thought Salinger’s use of language, his frankness and Holden Caulfield’s anger, tapped into my own adolescent crisis. Between those pages lurked my own flustered teenage id in the sad tale of a runaway prep school brat.
Caulfield represented a jaded, bitter American youth who railed against the phonies and authority in society. His own tortured trip into the city plays out like a frustrating travelogue of angst and self-loathing. He was the lone wolf growling at what he perceives as an adult world suffocating itself with convention. However, as a lone wolf, Caulfield doesn’t have much of a bite.
Caulfield is a pretentious whiner, a drama queen so immature he chooses not to confront responsibility but wallow in a pitiful gulag of his own making. If Caulfield wasn’t a spoiled prep school douchebag, he’d be a serial killer living in the Midwest.
I’m sure at the time of its publication “The Catcher in the Rye” was a sensation, but now it appears a bit dated and unbelievable. Caulfield’s flaw is not that he doesn’t change; it’s that he just doesn’t give a shit about changing. He’s the master cynic, a petty snob casting a jaundiced eye at everything.
The book sells 250,000 copies each year and is required reading for many high school literature classes. It’s also one of the most banned books in schools.
Salinger led a nearly hermit-like existence, living in solitude in his Cornish, N.H. home after the attention he received from “The Catcher in the Rye.” Though he published short stories and other works, “Catcher” stands out as his magnum opus.
Who was J.D. Salinger? Was he an eccentric recluse blinded by his own success, a misanthrope dwelling in a crumbled house of cards or a titanic genius whiling his life away in peace?
Did he create a book that defined the anger and resentment of youth, an adolescent hatefest borne by his own flawed personality?
Some of the greatest minds are insane geniuses toiling in total darkness, occasionally letting the light filter through the curtains. Birthing this literary juggernaut of the 20th century wasn’t easy. Coping with its success and criticism requires an iron fortitude.
Salinger coped by running away, cloistering himself from society, the one-time literary celebrity who lived in seclusion.
Whether you like “Catcher” or loathe it, you’ve got to give props to Salinger for creating a unique novel for its time.
Many writers (like me) long for such inspiration, when the clouds part and the words all tumble out onto the page arranged in perfect order. When the story comes together and everything fits so perfectly. When words on a page convey powerfully gut-wrenching emotion. When this happens, you know you’ve written something marvelous.
Every new rejection letter from a publisher has me doubtful if I’ll ever hit that lucky stride and write anything worth reading. Yet I can’t give up. I’ve spent decades writing, bumping the stories from my head onto the page. I’m not going to be a shrinking pessimist like Caulfield.
I’m still looking for my “Catcher.”

Sunday, January 24, 2010

In My Parent's Basement

As a teenager, I spent countless hours in my parent's basement, a refuge for geeks, nerds and the socially inept since the advent of subterranean habitation began millions of years ago. My parent's house had a roomy, bright basement that was cool in the summer and warm in the winter and afforded me the creature comforts I needed: bookcases, sofas and a computer.
Down in the basement, away from the distractions of the outside world, I could think. I internalized my situation at school and bathed in peace and quiet as I wrote whatever I wanted.
Years later I understand what that antisocial space of my parent's basement really was: a laboratory for the person I'd become.
In the early 1980s, the personal computer loomed large as wondrous technology. If you had a computer, you were very fortunate. For entertainment, the computer was in its infancy. Arcade games still dominated the video game market, along with home consoles like Atari, Television and Colecovision. Personal computers were really nerd tools because the only people who understood them were MIT grads with pocket protectors and an encyclopedic knowledge of old Star Trek episodes.
One of the best computers on the market at the time was the Commodore 64, often referred to as the "breadbox" because of its bulky shape. I had a Commodore 64 and played games on it, although they weren't as sophisticated as the coin operated monstrosities that inhabited the arcades.
I played games by a Cambridge, Mass.-based software company called Infocom, which produced a line if text adventures. Instead of graphically depicting the action on the screen and having the player use a joystick, the game consisted of written text. You'd read the story and at the prompt, you'd type in a command for what you wanted to do next. The game responded by describing the consequences of your actions and in that way, you moved the story forward. Think of it as the computer age equivalent of those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books.
I can't fathom playing today's console games as text adventures. Grand Theft Auto would be a totally different experience. It would be monotonous to continually type commands like STEAL CAR, DRIVE FAST, and KILL HOOKER.
Infocom's product catalog featured a variety of different text adventures, from their most popular title, Zork, to the science fiction-themed Planetfall, to mysteries like Deadline and The Witness. There was even a text adventure for Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and a ribald space opera adventure called Leather Goddesses of Phobos.
Playing these games wasn't only a fun way to pass the time during the paranoid-infused Cold War Reagan years. It also gave me a set of skills that I use today in my professional career. You might say that I'm the person I am today because I stayed in my parent's basement and scoured the Great Underground Empire of Zork, trying to solve multiple puzzles while staring at a blinking cursor.
Infocom's text adventures gave me a love for reading and the power of the written word to entertain. The games improved my typing skill tremendously. By forcing the user to type commands on a keyboard rather than use controllers suited for hand-eye coordination and motor skill, the text adventures made you familiar with a keyboard's basic orientation. With that familiarity, you just typed faster.
The enduring quality of Infocom games was that they allowed you to use your imagination, something akin to the paper and pencil RPGs that exist today. Imagination is a powerful and unique thing, making each game a different experience for every player.
Zork, Planetfall and the rest were training manuals that set the stage for me as a writer. For the first time, I saw writing used a different way, one that was interactive instead of static. My new hero was Steve Meretzky, who wrote the Infocom titles Planetfall, Sorcerer, Leather Goddesses of Phobos and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the Spellcasting series for Legend Entertainment. I also admired Al Lowe, the creative mind behind the Leisure Suit Larry games for his bizarre sense of humor.
As the years went by, I played more adventure games, both text and graphical. Adventure games were more challenging and intellectually rewarding than simple shoot 'em ups. You weren't just watching blips on a screen; you were steering the course of a character's destiny in a game world filled with puzzles and dangerous obstacles.
Though I liked playing, I wanted to actually write my own adventure games. I got my chance with a program called Adventure Writer that allowed users to program their own text adventures. This was like Prometheus bringing fire down from Olympus! For me, this divine present meant I could write the adventures I wanted to play on the C-64. I wasn't only a player; I'd be a game designer!
I read the 110-page manual, installed the software and began typing. I wrote the locations, the objects and thought out clever puzzles for players to struggle with. I developed my own game world, a distinct place populated by my unique brand of teenage humor. The final product was a horror game called "Night of the Undead Used Car Salesmen."
The game began with your intrepid hero waking up after a raucous party. You befriend an attractive but obtuse bimbo (as in most horror movies) and you both search for your missing neighbor who was abducted by zombie car salesmen who are holding his captive in an abandoned car lot overflowing with rusted Edsels, Yugos and Model Ts. Your hero has to break into the lot, rescue your neighbor and destroy the zombies.
Weird premise, but it was the first game I designed. I still have the old floppies somewhere but without a C-64 to run it on the game is like a fly frozen in amber, a world trapped on a disc.
My professional career path led me to a career in journalism, a far cry from writing about zombie car salesmen. My love for gaming still remains, however. I traded my C-64 for newer, faster computers and game consoles and I regularly play paper and pencil RPGs. This marriage of writing and gaming led to my creation of an RPG called Ravaged Earth, which was published in 2008.
Ravaged Earth was a crowning personal achievement. I've played many RPGs, but the chance to create my own and have a game company publish it was an amazing opportunity and fulfillment of a dream.
All those years in my parent's basement geeking out with rapture to adventure games and frivolous video-induced entertainment paid off. You never know where life is going to take you. Along the way, you're shaped by the most trivial and inconspicuous things. Mine just happened to be a basement, text adventures and a limitless imagination.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Riding A Gigantic Angry Wave

The voters of Massachusetts have spoken, electing Republican Scott Brown to fill the late Teddy Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat. Brown upset the Democratic challenger, Martha Coakley by winning 52 percent to 47 percent. The win gives the GOP 41 Senate seats, enough to block the health care legislation and to prevent Democrats from blocking their filibusters
Brown’s victory was a series of Republican wins in a nation driven crazy by the perceived jackbooted tactics of President Obama’s Administration, which began with thunderous approval and ovation a year ago.

Now, 12 months later, the country’s political landscape is fractured and festering amid renewed promises by the minions of a certain couscous-munching mastermind who wants Americans to be blown out of the skies and an economy struggling to jumpstart itself.

What a difference a year makes.

In January of 2009, the National Mall in Washington overflowed as millions cheered Obama on his momentous, history-making inaugural. Now, the atmosphere in Washington is buzzing with a new mantra, one where giddy Republicans who a year ago were about to commit political seppuku, rose phoenix-like from the ashes of a bungled health care reform and an America that reminds one not of the shining city on the hill, but of the childlike dystopia from Logan’s Run.

It began with a fierce partisanship not seen in years, when good people recalcitrant to accept a change of political ideology, boiled with rage at it, and even conspired to defeat it. At its core, the sunshine patriots, the Biblical zealots, the nomads and hermits seething with rage in their subterranean Montana bunkers at a president who seemed so out of touch with their values. But rapidly, the movement gained momentum and others came aboard for the ride: the Teaparty Republicans (or Teabaggers as they’re called in some circles), the Dittoheads, Birthers, the Ma and Pa Businesspeople forced to close shop, the Palinites, the moralists and anyone else who fears a large government branded as “socialistic.”

While the GOP started the torch and pitchfork party, they didn't finish it. The independent voters, pissed off at Beltway stagnation and special interests, joined in the backlash and voted Republican.

It only takes a little spark to grow a conflagration.

With the election of Republican governors in Virginia and New Jersey, the GOP touted its message and took it as a sign from providence that the Democrats were on the losing side of history. Robert Creigh Deeds, Jon Corzine and now Coakley were sacrificed on the pyre of Vox Populi, driven from office by a horde of unsatisfied voters. Democrats really have to screw up to lose Massachusetts, a state that's is so liberal, the state flower is cannabis.

Now all the liberals and social progressives and self-righteous Ivy League douchebags who sniggered at Republicans for being gun-toting Neanderthals are crying in their granola. Teddy Kennedy's corpse is doing cartwheels in the grave and the Democratic Party is like a one-armed juggler: sad to watch but morbidly entertaining.

Barack Obama had become the new Macbeth, driven by ambition without realizing his scheme will backfire into a bloody mess of political casualties as one loss after another his party disintegrates before him.

Unlike France in the 1790s, this revolution won’t have guillotines. Yet heads will roll in the corridors of Washington and around the country. The unwashed masses have spoken and sent a mandate to Obama.

For a while, it looked like the Democrats had turned a corner. It appeared the party of nebbish intellectuals who were too smart for NASCAR and too remote from Main Street had caught the imagination of the American voters with Obama. No more would the party field weak candidates like Al Gore or John Kerry. Obama was a different animal, a creature comfortable with his destiny and determined to live out his Horatio Alger rags-to-riches destiny on the American stage.

Yet that didn’t happen. Something got lost in translation. So focused to prove his might, he spent all of his political capital on healthcare instead of working to repair the economy, not with gimmicks like Cash For Clunkers or the bloated American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but with incentives for businesses that grow private sector jobs.

In wanting to be the dashing Paladins that would save America, the Obama Administration became the jesters pilloried and pelted to death by public distrust and scorn. Their enemies mustered enough resentment that drowned every good intention Obama meekly tried putting forward. Americans, tired of being lectured and scolded like they were to blame, rode that gigantic angry wave to the polls and spanked the Democrats.

Obama, in trying to be a Superman President and international wunderkind, became the catalyst for his own party’s undoing, accompanied by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and a liberal wing of the Democratic Party that cared more about pushing their own agenda than about bipartisan concessions.

This isn’t to say Obama’s critics should be canonized. Most of them are hired guns pushing their own agendas, distorting records and playing on the public’s fears of liberals as the 21st century bogeymen.

The tragic irony of recent politics is the tone set a year ago is like a cocaine high, one where the adrenaline-pumping rush pushes you to a dazzling state of euphoria. America thought it had found the answer in Barack Obama. They thought that prejudice and bigotry were antiquated concepts and that he’d lead the country into a new era of prosperity.

They’d bitterly discover that behind the fawning media coverage and idolization, Obama was only human, susceptible to mistakes and miscalculations. Instead of sweeping change, we got the same Congressional leaders. We got the same politics of acrimony and spite. We got pandering, pettiness and an egotistical party that made the worst dungeon-crawling nightmares that inhabited Dick Cheney’s inner circle seem like a high school glee club by comparison.

Now the pendulum is swinging the other way, and the Democrats, who showed so much promise a year ago, are fleeting like rats on the Titanic, shuddering at their recent misfortunes at the polls.

Is America better off for it? Only time will tell. Maybe a changing of the guard is a hard slap across the face and a cold shower for them. Perhaps the underdog’s seat is where they’re most comfortable. You can’t crow about standing up for the little guy if you control all the seats.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Earthquakes and Evangelists

Haiti suffered a 7.0 magnitude earthquake, its largest in 200 years, with widespread devastation around the capital of Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12.
Officials claim as many as 100,000 are dead, with millions left homeless.
Images of the earthquake zipped around the world, as Internet news sites posted photos from Port-au-Prince. Some of the iconic scenes captured include the domed Presidential Palace as a cracked mountain of rubble; people crying and dazed, their faces covered with blood; and city buildings resembling bombed debris from Iraq or Afghanistan.
But not everything is all piles of rubble and thousands of dead, exposed bodies rotting in the tropical heat.
Televangelist Pat Robertson placed a positive spin on the earthquake in Haiti.
Talking to Bill Horan, president of Operation Blessing, Robertson said, “If all those buildings are down, I understand more are falling than are standing, it may be a blessing in disguise. There might be a massive rebuilding of that country. Is that possible?”
Horan replied, “I don’t know. I would think that would be a pretty optimistic attitude.”
A blessing in disguise?
Are you fucking kidding me? Did Robertson see the photos of the children weeping, the collapsed walls crushing bodies and hundreds of displaced citizens sleeping on the streets?
I guess between hawking imitation prayer napkins and plastic dashboard Jesus statues, he missed the news accounts portraying the earthquake as what it really was: a calamity.
Yet according to Captain Christ, the earthquake was the best thing to happen to Haiti since the Port-au-Prince McDonald’s introduced the McPlantain.
Wait. It gets worse.
Robertson said those Haitian heathens with their voodoo, dreadlocks and godless ways had this coming.
Later in the program, Robertson said, “Something happened a long time ago in Haiti and the people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said ‘we will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French.’ True story. And the devil said, ‘Okay, it’s a deal.’ They kicked the French out and the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. Ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other.”
I’m sure the quake had nothing to do with the American and Caribbean tectonic plates being in close proximity to Haiti, with fault lines running through the island nation. It was that goofy devil theory.
Robertson said the island of Hispaniola is divided down the middle with the Dominican Republic being prosperous and Haiti “is in desperate poverty.”
Again, according to Robertson, politics and culture have nothing to do with one country being prosperous and another being impoverished.
It’s the Faustian pact.
But the earthquake claimed the lives of Archbishop Joseph Serge Milot and relief workers, soldiers and diplomats from other countries. You know: people whose ancestors didn’t turn to Beelzebub to kick the frogs off their island.
It’s hard to take these Elmer Gantry clones seriously when they have the temerity to expound on world issues.
Remember when that asshole Jerry Falwell blamed the September 11 terrorist attacks on everyone but the terrorists? Falwell said “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternate lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America” were responsible for hijacking airplanes, slamming them into the World Trade Center and killing over 3,000 people.
And I thought the only thing the gays killed was Ted Haggard's career.
According to Robertson, the Haitian earthquake is a bold opportunity to rebuild a Third World shithole and put a Starbucks on every corner. Or a Fatburger. Or a Walmart. Or whatever corporate American retail chain that could pump money into Haiti’s desperate economy.
“Out of this tragedy, I’m optimistic something good may come,” Robertson said.
It’s bad enough that the Haitians have a government that’s about as stable as Somalia, but does Robertson have to add insult to injury by praying for urban renewal at the hands of a cataclysmic natural disaster?
The only good thing to come out of this tragedy is the international aid rushing to assist the Haitian people. The United States sent emergency and rescue workers, military forces and equipment, while the United Nations gave emergency funds. Countries such as Germany, Spain, China, and Sweden are contributing money and manpower, while France, Britain, Iceland, Israel and Taiwan are sending doctors, rescue personnel and engineers.
This is when the world shines, when humanity shows a natural inclination to assist their fellow man through compassion and unity. It’s better than a prophet of doom espousing ignorance and superstition.