Armagideon Time

Peaked in high school

April 3rd, 2017

Excitement has been building among my friends for the upcoming continuation of Twin Peaks. While I hope the new episodes live up to my friends’ lofty exceptions, I plan on sitting this one out.

The original series debuted during the tail end of my senior year in high school. I first got word of it from my old man of all people, who never really got the whole concept of punk rock but did (and still does) make the occasional effort to bond with his sons over what he interprets as some quirky or geeky touchstone.

“I dunno, Andy, it’s supposed to be really weird and surreal and sounds like something you’d like. Oh, and that guy from The Rookies is in it.”

There was also a bit of buzz about it from the gaggle of geeky misfits I shared a lunch table with, mostly due to series co-creator David Lynch’s previous involvement with Eraserhead and Blue Velvet. The hype was enough to make me watch the pilot episode. Anything remotely “punk” or “underground” would get my attention in those days, when such things were relatively thin on the ground and beggars couldn’t be choosers.

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting from Twin Peaks. I just know it didn’t deliver it on any level of interest to me, apart from the multiple oh-so-crushworthy female members of its cast. The series felt more affected than legitimately strange, as if the drama club girl who pinned a wilted gardena to her wide-brimmed hat became the showrunner for Dynasty.

My family used to throw barbecues with a schizophrenic who talked to Jesus and a guy who chewed off his own lips during a drug-induced stupor. No middle-aged woman toting a log was going to clear that bar for bizarre experiences.

Yet I did continue to watch the show, partly to swoon over Madchen Amick and partially to have something to discuss besides Dragonlance canon around the lunch table. The season one finale aired the night before my senior prom, and some classmates and I discussed the the episode’s shocking ending as we waited to pick up our tuxes at the rental place in Burlington the following afternoon.

I stuck around long enough to catch the second season resolution of that cliffhanger, but a lot of water had passed under the bridge in those four months. I had enrolled in college, and managed to hook up with an assortment of geeks whose intensity outstripped my suburban circles by several orders of magnitude. Being a hot new-ish thing with highbrow leanings, Twin Peaks was object of extreme devotion among the more artsy — or wannabe artsy — segments of the fanfolk population.

In practice, this just amounted to little more than a veneer of pretension over the old, familiar behaviors. The dwarf’s backward-forward speak was the subject of a billion piss-poor attempts at impersonation, while the “Damn good, [insert noun]” utterances approached actual infinity. No mixtape was complete without a segment from Angelo Badalamenti’s score from the show or a Julee Cruise number thrown in between cuts by Rush and Ministry.

In high school, I watched the show so I could have something to talk about with friends. In college, I rapidly learned to avoid any mention of it lest I unleash a long and stultifying torrent of fan-wank. Any residual interest I had in Twin Peaks died a painful death after a scraggly Skinny Puppy fan spent forty five minutes attempting to explain the Black Lodge to me on a stalled Red Line train.

An odd, but entirely predictable, consequence of the show was the uptick in handheld cassette recorder sales. I knew no fewer than four Twin Peaks fanboys who dropped money on the devices to emulate their idol Agent Cooper. The memory of this has set my mind to wondering if any of recordings made by them or others of their ilk remain.

If so, a transcription of their contents could form the basis for the saddest book ever published.

Knowledge is a drug

March 31st, 2017

Before heading out to see the live-action Beauty and the Beast flick last Tuesday, Maura and I took a side trip out to Wilmington to return a pair of cable boxes to the local Comcast storefront. It wasn’t until we got there that we learned the place had relocated to one of the mixed-use developments that have sprouted up like so many upscale mushrooms in neighboring Burlington, but the trip wasn’t entirely in vain because it gave me a chance to roll through my old North Woburn stomping grounds and catch a glimpse of the Linscott-Rumford Elementary School.

I attended the Linscott-Rumford from kindergarten straight through to sixth grade. It was the product of a before-my-time merger of two older schools — the *gasp* Linscott and the *shock* Rumford — its two linked buildings kept maintained the individual names. The Rumford was the newer of the pair, and housed the gym, administrative offices, and classrooms up through grade four in Cold War modernist style. The Linscott was the older building — kitted out with dark-varnished hardwood and flesh-searing steam radiators — and housed the fifth and sixth grade classrooms, cafeteria, library and an “auditorium” which resembled a 1970s panel show set (and was where I watched a grainy print of The Man Called Flinstone and countless educational filmstrips).

As the domain of the elementary upperclassmen, the Linscott had a certain mystique that was enhanced by the budget-mandated anachronisms of its physical plant. “Moving to the old building” was a rite of passage, separating the infants from the wizened tweeners. The place had an additional allure for me, because it also contained the school library

In truth, the school library was just an assortment of free-standing bookshelves and study tables and desks arranged around the front half of the open area between the classrooms, but there was magic to be found on those shelves — forgotten and uncirculated tomes that hadn’t been touched in years, if ever. My favorite of the lot was a prose retelling of the Iliad and Odyssey illustrated with mid-century modern takes on Grecian urn art, but the close runner-up was a book I can still recall in vivid detail.

Well, everything except its title, which was a string of drug slang terms worthy of Jack Webb. “Mary Jane, Yellowjackets, and Angel Dust,” or something along those lines. The book was preachy slice of late Sixties/early Seventies anti-drug agitprop. Its assortment of clinical details and cautionary tales was illuminated by “psychedelic” line art laid over an assortment of trippy inkblots, and depicted things such as an acid casualty burning out his eyes while staring at the sun and the little brother of a glue huffer suffocating from a plastic bag over the head.

It fascinated me for the same reason stories about Bigfoot, the Bermuda Triangle, and poltergeists fascinated me. It offered a glimpse into a terrifying other world, but in this case one that was reinforced by a steady drumbeat of nightly news stories about hulked-out dustheads and playground whispers about LSD-laced tattoos getting handed out by a van-driving deviant in a clown costume. Kids are always drawn to (and terrified by) suggestions of the nightmare realm at the fringes of their limited perspective. Kids of the Seventies were especially spoiled for choice.

Though no one had touched the book prior to my discovering it, it soon became the most popular item in the school’s collection. The waitlist for checking it out came to include every member of my fifth grade class, much to the chagrin of our teacher and the school’s principal. Then, one day, the book — and its card catalog entry — mysteriously vanished, as if it had never existed.

If the book hadn’t been subject to surreptitious deletion, it would’ve been eradicated by the fire set by a trio of teens three years later. That act of adolescent arson completely destroyed the Linscott (though the Rumford was spared) and everything within it. My family had moved to Woburn Center by then, but I made the two mile bike ride down Route 38 to gawk at the blaze alongside pretty much everyone else in the neighborhood.

As blazing fragments of mimeographed pages fell from the sky, I cursed myself for not swiping that Iliad book when I had the chance.

Though my attempt to run Tomb of Horrors turned out to be a glacially paced fiasco, it did result in a new friendship with yet another kid named Scott. Scott lived two streets over from me and that geographical proximity led to Scott spending a good deal of time at my place during the summer of 1987. He’d show up at my door around mid-morning, then spend the rest of the day and most of the night hanging out with Lil Bro and me.

Scott had an incredible knack with electronics and other such devices, which nicely complemented my facility for breaking things. Not only did he keep the battered joypad for my Master System functioning, but he also managed to jury rig a second controller from an old Atari 2600 stick and some bits and pieces he had lying around. Most of my basic education in the field came from watching him work and patiently explain things like “contacts” and “piezo discs” to my awestruck teen self.

When he wasn’t trying to help me wire my TV’s audio into my stereo’s auxiliary jack or run a high gain antenna up my duplex’s drainpipe, we spent our time reading comics, discussing geeky popcult shit of the day, and indulging in marathon Dungeons & Dragons sessions — the most memorable and epic of those involving The Temple of Elemental Evil.

Though designated T-1 through T-4 in TSR’s product listings, The Temple of Elemental Evil was actually a softbound “megamodule” following up on the starter-level Village of Hommlet adventure released half a decade earlier. I had owned the book for a while before tackling it in earnest. It was one of the deep discounted remainders on the local Toys R Us’s ever shrinking RPG shelf, and the ten buck price tag and sheer thickness of the thing convinced me to buy it.

The module was billed as the ultimate dungeon crawl, a four level complex (and introductory annex) filled with all manner of fell creatures and fiendish traps. It was an all-inclusive, ready-made aimed giving beginning players the archetypal loot ‘n’ hack fantasy role playing experience. I had run through the Hommlet part of the adventure with my previous group of players, but had never progressed into the Temple complex proper.

By the time I did decided to run the full adventure, Scott’s paladin and Lil Bro’s cavalier had already passed the upper limit of the suggest level range for the scenario. If I was running it today, I would scale the opposition to match the players’ strength. My fifteen year old self, however, decided to let the chivalric duo brute force their way through the module with bloody — but nominally “lawful good” — abandon.

Having brought the vengeance of the righteous to the cult-riddled community of Nulb, Scott and Lil Bro took on the dungeon proper. They shrugged off what were intended to be lethal hazards while slashing through hordes of enemies and filling baggage trains with newly appropriated loot. It was absolutely absurd, but they couldn’t gent enough of it. They’d been at it for six hours (including videogame and dinner breaks) by the time midnight rolled around, but had no desire to break their streak. After checking in with his parents, Scott suggested we pull an all-nighter to finish the adventure, and I was more than happy to agree.

The three of us walked down to the Christy’s (now a 7-11) on the outskirts of the center to fortify ourselves with Cajun Spice Ruffles (oh, how I miss you), Mamba candy chews, and slushies that were at least 40% syrup by weight. Every few steps Scott or Lil Bro would shatter the silence of early morning Hammond Square with “AND WHEN I SCORED A DOUBLE CRITICAL ON THAT EVIL PRIEST? AWESOME!” or some similar celebration of triumph.

They broke into the demon god’s lair at the center of the temple shortly before daybreak, sending her screaming soul back to the Abyss in time for the three of us to catch an hour’s sleep.

We woke up wanting more, and I scrambled through my stack of RPG clutter to oblige them.

Of all my role-playing memories, that night was absolutely my favorite one. Solid narrative structure and well-crafted challenges are fine and all, but there’s nothing quite like the goofy exuberance of dumb-ass kids bullshitting their way through a fantasy power trip. It gets old after a while, because of the buzzkilling creep of maturity or simple repetition, but that fleeting moment when those stars align? Man, there’s nothing quite like it…precisely because you know it can never be recreated.

My lingering fondness for The Temple of Elemental Evil remained strong enough to convince me to pick up a used copy of TSR’s novelization of the module and the bug-riddled PC game based on the adventure. My affection survived both experiences, suggesting that it is functionally immortal.

The module also inspired a cream soda spit-take a few months back, when Lil Bro told me the DM of his current gaming group “was way more generous with loot” than I ever was.

A half-life in film

March 27th, 2017

There’s a new Twitter meme making the rounds where folks pick a favorite movie from each year of their life. Such a list would be unwieldy enough for a millennial kid, never mind someone with as many miles as I have on the ol’ temporal odometer. I made it about a decade in before realizing it might as well be a blog post…

….or a lazy, facile excuse for one, which is right up my alley.

So here you go:

1972: Dr. Phibes Rises Again
1973: American Graffiti
1974: Phantom of the Paradise
1975: The Giant Spider Invasion
1976: Carrie
1977: Smokey and the Bandit
1978: National Lampoon’s Animal House
1979: The Jerk
1980: The Blues Brothers
1981: An American Werewolf in London
1982: Fast Times at Ridgemont High
1983: Valley Girl
1984: Repo Man
1985: Real Genius
1986: Big Trouble in Little China
1987: Withnail and I
1988: Heathers
1989: Glory
1990: Edward Scissorhands
1991: Beauty and the Beast
1992: Singles
1993: So I Married an Axe Murderer
1994: Ed Wood
1995: Empire Records
1996: The Long Kiss Goodnight
1997: Grosse Pointe Blank
1998: Can’t Hardly Wait
1999: Galaxy Quest
2000: Battle Royale
2001: Josie and the Pussycats
2002: 28 Days Later
2003: Lost in Translation
2004: Shaun of the Dead
2005: Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
2006: Casino Royale
2007: Hot Fuzz
2008: Iron Man
2009: Up
2010: Tangled
2011: Captain America: The First Avenger
2012: Moonrise Kingdom
2013: Pacific Rim
2014: Guardians of the Galaxy
2015: Mad Max: Fury Road
2016: Keanu
2017: TBD

The original meme specified “favorites” and that’s exactly what I’ve listed. These aren’t films I use to flaunt my rarefied tastes, but ones I will willingly sit through if they turn up on cable or throw into the DVD player if I don’t feel like playing videogames or reading. Several of these — especially towards the tail end — are default selections. I was never much of a moviegoer to begin with and have been even less so over the past decade. Also, the whole retro thing tends to keep me out of the loop when it comes to anything on this side of Y2K.

That said, there’s nothing on there I’m particularly ashamed of…really. And, yes, if given the choice I would rather watch Smokey and The Bandit than the original Star Wars.

I’m not really into the whole anniversary tribute school of popcult writing. It’s a bit too low-hanging for my tastes and generates a slew of half-assed hot takes by folks whose experience of the item in question tends to be after-the-fact backfiller. You shouldn’t need some arbitrary temporal milestone to shine the spotlight on a worthy subject.

Also, I’m at an age where “can you believe such-and-such happened TEN YEARS AGO” is met less with wonderment than a sobering reminder of my fleeting mortality.

That said, this week did mark the twentieth anniversary of a pair of videogames with some profound personal resonance, so I felt some words were in order.

Maura landed her first grown-up, unionized job in the late fall of 1996. It was a big event, and one that I celebrated by pestering her into buying me a Sega Saturn for Christmas. To my shock (and guilt and eternal gratitude), she actually went ahead and did it.

The system came with a three-disc pack-in of Virtual Cop 2, Virtua Fighter 2, and Daytona USA. They were a perfect starter selection, but I still hankered for some next-gen JRPG kicks. The Saturn’s library of such titles was already thin on the ground domestically, and the scarcity was made more pronounced by the holiday season clean-out of retailer’s shelves. With nothing I wanted in stock locally, I decided to pick up an issue of EGM to see if mail order would be a better option.

It was, on two unanticipated (and expensive) fronts. The mail order firms who advertised in the mag’s back pages also dealt in the realm of import titles — untranslated RPGS and licensed offerings that could be playable on a domestic Saturn by way of a modestly priced Action Replay adapter. My anime fandom hadn’t yet atrophied at that point, and the notion of playing a Gundam-themed FPS or Macross shoot-em-up was too great a temptation even with the import surcharge.

That particular issue of EGM also featured glowing reviews for the first Suikoden and Persona games, which was enough to sink a chunk of my limited budget into a Playstation a week later. To finance all this electronic extravagance, I took a seasonal job at my wife’s office. In between opening and sorting buckets of mail, I dicked around on the office’s fancy Netcape-enabled machines to check out the latest gaming news on sites like Sega Sages and Anime Playstation. The latter one was especially influential because it’s import-heavy focus nudged me toward the moment where the two fronts converged — the purchase of a mod-chipped, import-ready PS console.

I bought it from some importer on the West Coast that used the Footloose soundtrack as its “on hold” music. The part of my brain that housed my common sense and fiscal prudence blared warnings during every moment of the phone call, but they were drowned out by the siren song of the irresponsible impulse buy.

A week passed, and I began to think I should’ve listened to those inner warnings. And then it arrived, with the pair of import games that sold me on this overpriced hunk of legally dodgy block of tech — Bushido Blade and Dracula X: Nocturne in the Moonlight (a.k.a. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night). Both were recent releases and the stuff of much online hype, a lot of centering around the low probability of either getting a domestic release.

I booted up Nocturne in the Moonlight first, but switched to Bushido Blade after Lil Bro and his friend showed up to check out my new acquisition. We spent the rest of the afternoon and most of the evening engaged in digital sword battles, our initial awkwardness with the game’s controls progressing into a Zen-like mastery of their intricacies.

We’d had marathon SNES Street Fighter II sessions before, but this was different. Bushido Blade wasn’t about mastering complex inputs or stringing combos. Its one-hit-kill take on the genre was an addictive mix of rock-paper-scissors and a gunslingers’ duel. Winning was a matter of fast reflexes and adopting the correct stance, and a match could be settled in the first couple of seconds (providing Lil Bro didn’t block my disembowelment two-stroke in time).

The game also oozed with atmosphere, down the minimalist soundtrack and interconnected arenas representing a Japanese castle. Hacking away at each other in a bamboo grove, trees falling as their trunks get severed by stray swings — it was like taking part in a samurai flick. The decision to set it in contemporary times was a bit baffling, but the overall package was something we’d never seen before and made all other fighting games feel silly by comparison.

And Nocturne in the Moonlight? It’s up there with Baldur’s Gate II and Dig Dug as my favorite videogame of all time, though it took me a while — and many visits to txt-file FAQ sites — to get a handle on what I was supposed to be doing in its Japanese-text expanse. The game is responsible for the latter half of the “Metroidvania” portmanteau, but it’s really in a genre apart from the more tightly channeled Metroid games (which I love) and the later GBA/DS simplifications of Nocturne‘s formula. The RPG leveling and inventory systems figure into that, but it has more to do with how the game managed to keep a tight focus yet an incredible level of optional depth.

I’ve beaten the game at least a dozen times. I make a point of revisiting it every time the Spooky Season rolls around. After two decades and hundreds of in-game hours later, each new playthrough reveals some little secret or bit of nuance I hadn’t encountered before. Most exploration/collection offerings get tiresome after you discover a certain percentage of their secrets, but Nocturne still feels as fresh as it did back in 1997.

Bushido Blade and Symphony of the Night are permanent installs on my PSP, and my love for both games has survived the years and unceasing torrent of newer and cooler tech. But there more to it than being a pair of evergreen diversions. Of all the games I squandered my time on during that era, those are the two that most lucidly evoke that period of my life — social sword-slashing gatherings around my shitty 13″ TV and late nights spent trying to work out what wizardry would unlock the Inverted Castle.

It was the end of my extended undergrad experience and the beginning of a life free of term papers and a decent amount of spending money. It only lasted four years before 9/11 and a cluster of other issues harshed the buzz, but it was golden while it lasted — comics-buying road trips with little bro, Seventies rock and Nineties electronica, Sunday afternoons lazing with Maura while watching grainy VHS dubs of Urgh! A Music War or some favorite MST3K episode for the umpteenth time.

On the surface, it sounds like a wheel-spinning “lost period,” but it was an essential transition period where I was lucky enough to have the time and space to figure out the direction my life would take — and every virtual katana slash I make or Axe Knight I dispatch reminds of those great times and good fortune.

this is a test

March 21st, 2017

a crazy crazy test oh what a test an incredible test whoo doggie

EDIT: what a zany test

The Lucy Show

March 16th, 2017

She is rapidly adjusting to her new surroundings.

After my buddy Mike and I went our separate ways, I gravitated into the orbit of a trio of geeky underclassmen — Scott, Christian, and Damian — I met while doing independent study for a “cool” English teacher. What began as dorky lunch table conversations about shared interests soon escalated into a consensus that we should start up a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, with yours truly (again) taking on the role of dungeonmaster.

We picked a time (Saturday afternoon) and a place (Damian’s house), after which I began to feel the panic set in. These guys gave every impression of being veteran players, and insisted upon using their favorite characters from previous campaigns. I was still pretty new to the hobby, and Mike’s eager embrace of hack ‘n’ loot excess did nothing to hone my skills as an interactive storyteller or rules referee.

Whatever scenario I ran had to be rock solid and deadly serious. I needed to show these guys I was in absolute command of the situation by establishing a tough-but-fair set of ground rules. A homebrew adventure couldn’t cut it. Only an official module would do the trick.

Fortunately, I had just the thing at hand — the infamous Tomb Of Horrors….

…which was one of the extras Mike tossed in when he sold me his half of our shared Gamma World box set.

Originally designed for tournament play, the module featured a particularly punishing dungeon packed with extremely lethal deathtraps and cunning fake-outs overseen by a nigh indestructible “demilich.” It was the stuff of which Total Party Kills were made (and you have bought a copy of Death Saves already, right?) and the perfect way to show my new players they type of DM they would be dealing with.

It was a brilliant plan…or it would’ve been if the module’s notoriety didn’t precede it.

In the two hours we sat around Damian’s living room table, the party managed to progress all of ten yards from the tomb’s entrance. Every stone was triple checked for some nefarious device. Every protective spell in the players’ collective arsenal was cast in preparation. Every wall examined closely for hidden doors or other surprises.

None of the players had ever run or owned Tomb of Horrors, but they’d of its legendary lethality and opted to play things extremely safe. “But your character doesn’t know that” is a sound bit of role-playing wisdom, but one that can be difficult to put into practice. They might’ve technically breached that protocol, but their actions were impossible to argue against. Faced with an unknown and potentially dangerous environment, they used their smarts to, well, drag things out into a painfully unproductive slog.

(This is why I eventually stopped using published scenarios as anything but a resource for ideas and maps to repurpose. Homebrew adventures don’t run the risk of previous exposure, providing you aren’t shamelessly lifting stuff from other media products.)

Even though we accomplished next to nothing in terms of game progress, that first meet-up was a huge success in terms of turning classmates into actual friends. I walked home from Damian’s place with Scott, who I learned lived two streets over from me and whose house was a stop on my paper route. We talked about hanging out some more, with or without the other two guys, and thus set the stage for what would be the “Golden Summer” of 1987.

Forty-five or fight

March 13th, 2017

I entered this world at 11:58 AM on March 13, 1972 at Fort Bragg’s Womack Army Hospital. My dad was well-liquored up when during the event, visibly recoiling at the sight of the wrinkled squirming infant he had a part in creating. When he showed up later and slightly more sober at my mother’s room, his first words in my direction were “He looks a lot better now.”

Each time my birthday rolls around around, the old man makes a point of calling me at the exact minute of my birth. He recounts the above story, gets defensive when I pretend to be insulted, then follows it up were “You were pretty hideous-looking.”

This year was no different, and the banter flowed into a discussion of politics (he absolutely despises Trump and anyone who voted for him), pets, and what’s happening the parts of the extended family each of us still keep in touch with.

I mentioned how my maternal grandmother’s tone spooked me during her pre-birthday call last weekend. She made a lot of repeat mentions about how much she loved me and my brother and our cousins, and how much she meant to us. That may not sound weird to outsiders, but it was incredibly uncharacteristic of our non-demonstrative breed of WASPs. Our emotions and affections are implied rather than publicly professed.

“Oh, that’s not strange,” replied my father. “She’s almost ninety and facing her mortality.”

He then went on to start talking about his own regrets as imperfect husband and father, which only disturbed me more.

I’ve spent three decades dealing with the psychic fallout from my old man. I’ve long given up any notion of contrition or even a serious conversation about it from him. The resolution has been internal and entirely on my own terms. It happened, I dealt with it, I moved on because there wasn’t a point in dwelling on the damage.

It has colored my relationship with my father since he cleaned himself up, when I traded festering grudges for amicable wariness. The experiences got folded into my personal mythology and my father became a (slightly) larger than life character. I would never recommend this process of abstraction and compartmentalization to anyone affected by a similar trauma, but the fatalistic approach has worked well enough for me.

(A couple of weeks ago I was asked by someone how did I cope with the legacy of those childhood horrors. I could not think of a convincing answer apart from “I kept moving forward.”)

I don’t know if it’s a good sign that my father has suddenly discovered the concept of guilt after sixty-seven years, but I have no desire to have the conversation it’s obviously moving towards. The moment for that has long passed, and nothing good can come out of dredging that crap up again. I’d rather spend the old man’s remaining time on earth enjoying the good relationship we currently have than triggering fights over wounds where even the scars have faded away.

(Need a companion piece to this birthday angst? Please check the first comment within the next seven days.)

Meet Lucia

March 10th, 2017

…or “Lucy.” She’s a Chihuahua/dachshund mix who was rescued from a high-kill shelter in Texas and flown up to the Bay State to join our family.

She’s very shy and nervous, but also extremely sweet. She’s still getting used to the House on the Hillside and her new housemates, but has already learned where the treats and how to guilt her humans into giving her some.

The cats have no problems with her so far. Ollie the Rock Stupid Puppy really isn’t sure what to make of her (which is pretty much his default response to everything), but doesn’t seem to have an issue with his new sibling.

It is a bit weird grasping that the twenty-five pound Ollie is now technically the “Big Dog” in house.

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