20 January 2011

You Don't Know The Meaning of Life Until You've Stared a Pants Full of Shit in the Eye

Sometimes our bodies do something so shocking and unexpected that one's outlook on life is often forever changed by it. What you are about to read is an account of one of those moments. [Side note: This is something that happened a few years ago, back when I was still living and working in New York City. And if this story sounds familiar, that's because I've told it before. Regardless, enjoy.]

Last Tuesday morning I was in the men's room here at the office having a pee when I felt a bit of gas trying to work itself out. It suddenly became clear that the gas was more than gas, and before I could take any preventative measures, boom--pants filled.

I locked myself into one of the stalls and tried--in vain--to get myself back together. Went through two rolls of TP. And my underwear was completely shot. I stepped out of them, tossed them into the waste basket.

Whole time I'm in there, I'm kind of in shock, laughing a little, unable to believe this was even happening to me. Muttering "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus," to myself.

I washed my hands about a million times and looked at my embarrassed face in the bathroom mirror.

My day clearly couldn't continue without underwear. There's a 24-hour Duane Reade downstairs which has a small Hanes section (I love drugstores in New York; they literally have everything), so I pulled my jacket on, took the elevator to the street.

I tried the double doors of the store, but they were locked for some reason. I peered through the glass. I could see people inside, but they weren't customers--they were all employees. That's when I noticed the handwritten sign taped to the doors: REGISTER SYSTEM DOWN--CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.

Unbelievable. In the seven years I've worked here never once has this Duane Reade been closed. Not one goddamned time.

Suddenly, my plight for new Hanes had taken a kind of Kafka-esque turn. The sky was low and gray and looked like impending doom; it might snow at any moment. I stood in the middle of the sidewalk on Park Avenue, in the cold shadows of nearby buildings, underwear-free, people pushing past me, despairing as much as I've ever despaired.

There's another Duane Reade over on Lexington, about three blocks away. I struck out for there....

Thankfully, this one was open. I was unfamiliar with the layout of this particular store, so I had to do a fair amount of hunting before I found the Hanes section (it was under a sign that read HEALTH, BEAUTY). I also bought a travel-sized pack of Huggies and a box of Imodium. I realized as I set these items down on the register counter--Hanes, Imodium, Huggies--I might as well have had a sign taped to my forehead that read YES, I HAVE SHIT MYSELF.

For some reason the woman running the register chose to squeeze these items into the smallest, least opaque shopping bag Duane Reade offers. "Don't you have any of those bigger shopping bags?" I asked sheepishly.

The woman was clearly more interested in the Chaka Khan song playing on the store sound system than she was in tending to me. "We ain't GOT no more shopping bags," she said. End of story.

Back at my office, I locked the door, then proceeded to change into my new Hanes. Mid-change, I suddenly realized I was standing half nude in my office, something which had never before happened in all my years of working here. How many occasions does one have to get nude in his office? Not many. I felt terribly vulnerable; a slight chill ran up the backs of my legs. I quickly stepped into not one but TWO brand new Hanes. (I reasoned it would be best to "two-ply it" for the rest of the day. Call the second pair a form of insurance.) I pulled my pants back on, ate a couple of the chalky-tasting Imodium, then tried to go about my day, business as usual....

...But it became clear that I couldn't function in any sort of normal capacity any longer. The day was over for me. The trauma of the whole shit event had derailed me. And I worried, quite honestly, that I might smell a little. There was nothing to do but go home.

I couldn't imagine trying to explain this to anyone, and I really didn't feel like making up some lie about my stomach or something (I'd taken a phony sick day just the day before), so I bolted, just shut down my computer around 2 and headed for the train. Nine out of 10 times, I reasoned, no one would even notice I was gone....

Went home, showered, changed, was relaxing, recovering, feeling better, when my telephone rang. I didn't pick up. No message. A few minutes later, it rang again. Again, no message. When it rang a third time, I decided to *69. The calls, to my dismay, were all coming from the office.

Around 5:30, voice comes on my answering machine. It's Mr. Traverson--the company president--from work. "No one knows what happened to you," he said. "I've been trying to reach you all afternoon. You'd better have a VERY good reason for leaving, or else I'm going to be really upset with you. Call me as soon as possible. I need to know what happened."

Getting a call from Mr. Traverson at home--a man who I rarely ever see, and rarely ever speak to when I do see him--was an event. This was obviously getting serious. It struck fear in my heart.

I tried to put the whole thing out of my head, kept telling myself that I'd deal with it in the morning. Took me two hours to realize that I couldn't do this, that I was far too preoccupied. I phoned my co-worker Hal on his cell, to ask his advice. Told him what happened, the shit, the Hanes, the whole deal. He started laughing. "That happens to everyone," he said. "It happened to my father once at hunting camp..."

"Really?" I said. It was a great comfort to hear this.

I said, "You know, nine out of 10 times no one would have even noticed I was gone."

"Well, this was the 10th time," Hal said. "Today wasn't your lucky day." Hal told me that Mr. Traverson was indeed very angry with me. "The thing to do is call him at home," Hal said. "If you want to save your job, that's what you have to do. Call him."

"Call him at home?"

"Yes, call him at home."

"When?" I asked.

"Right now," he said. "He's probably just sitting there, watching some dumb TV program..."

I started laughing.

"What's funny?" Hal asked.

"I'm laughing because you're right, that is what I have to do," I said. "And I'm laughing because I can't believe I'm going to actually do this. This is surreal."

"It's really for the best," Hal said, then gave me Mr. Traverson's private cell phone number.

I dialed. Took several deep breaths. He answered on the third ring. "Hello?"

"Mr. Traverson," I said, my voice shaking a little. "Sorry to bother you at home.... It's Scott. From Editorial."

"We were all wondering what became of you today," he said ominously.

"That's why I'm calling you, Mr. Traverson. You see..." I said, pausing momentarily to gather myself. "I was standing at the urinal peeing this morning. I felt a little gas moving along, and before I knew what was happening, I'd shit my pants. And that's why I left. I ran out of the office because I was too embarrassed to try to explain this to anybody."

Mr. Traverson didn't say anything. A space yawned between us, for one second, two seconds, three seconds. I felt it my duty to fill these empty moments with nervous chatter of some sort, but I managed to restrain myself, counseling myself with the thought that I'd said my piece, now let it stand, and let him react to it however he was going to react to it.

Finally, he spoke. "This is obviously a delicate matter," he said. "You know you can always come to me with these...private things. You can trust me. But the bottom line is, we're running an office here. Communication is the key. We need to know where everyone is at all times, or else the whole system breaks down."

"I know," I said. "You're right. I'm sorry."

"Well," he said, "I'll see you in the morning." And he hung up.

I hung up the phone. I was exhausted on a core level. I couldn't believe all the shit--literally--I'd been through the past 12 hours. What a day. What a motherfucking day. After I got off the phone, I drank. To use one of John Galvin's favorite phrases, I moved through all the beer in the house. The beer helped. It burned off some of the tension, calmed me down a little.

I can tell you this much: I've become much more respectful of my bodily functions. And the simple act of peeing is slightly more stressful than it once was. I'm doing it with a great deal of caution these days.

A week has passed since this happened. "Today's your one-week anniversary," Hal wrote in an email this morning. He suggested I celebrate by buying myself a brownie.

Everyone's a smart-ass, I guess.

19 January 2011

January Got You By the Short Hairs? Read This.

It's always dark when I get home at night from the studio, and dark in the morning when I wake up. Right now, and for the foreseeable future, my days are literally bookended by darkness.

The blinds in my apartment--blinds are more masculine than curtains--have not been touched for months now.

This short-days-long-nights dynamic is, of course, commonplace in North America. But it's even more pronounced here in the Pacific Northwest thanks to the never ending rain. Yes, it's raining now--right this very second, even as I type this. I can see it falling in great streaks against the dark windows in my kitchen. And I have to go out into it shortly, to get to work. (The photo in the upper left was taken at the time of this writing.)


Maybe I'm getting old, but this January seems to be putting up more of a fight than previous Januarys. I feel like I'm always trying to get to the next day--If I can just get to Thursday, I'll be fine, I tell myself--same way that a climber scaling the sheer face of an ice wall is focused on trying to find a place to put his right crampon-wearing foot.

Obvious metaphors aside, I'm feeling really pretty low these days. Maybe not exactly depressed. Depressed implies that I need professional help. I don't think I'm there. Not yet, anyway.

Once we stopped shooting the show in December and Vic went on vacation for a couple weeks, I holed up in my apartment and drank beer and covered myself in cats. I stayed away from Twitter and tried to avoid contact with anyone who I would normally have contact with. Low point: one night I watched The Human Centipede on Netflix. All of it. Even when the Japanese man is crying and apologizing because he is defecating in the middle piece's mouth.

For decades now, I have been attempting to perfect the Activity Formula (A.F.) for holiday breaks. If the previous paragraph was a scientific experiment, that combination of elements--cats, beer, The Human Centipede--would have caused an explosion that would have destroyed my entire laboratory as well as several surrounding city blocks.

I went to visit my family on the East Coast a few days before Christmas, which basically always requires me to take this byzantine flight path across the country, praying the entire time that whatever mosquito-sized airplane I am in doesn't get blown out of the sky by Old Man Winter. Once I arrived, my parents picked me up at a deserted airport, and I sat in the backseat of their mini-van the same way I did when I was 12 years old. My parents argued and bickered and played Christmas music in the front seat while I drew penises in the frost on the inside of the car's back window.

Ah, Christmas traditions. I wish Normal Rockwell was still alive to paint mine.

On Christmas Day, we drove to Utica where we had our usual Christmas dinner at 2 p.m. sharp at my Aunt Barbara and Uncle Tony's house. I do enjoy the dinners--I always sit next to my Aunt Barbara and make terrible jokes and she laughs. But the Christmas dinner table has gotten dramatically smaller over the decades. Cousins who now have their own families are too busy to show up. A few people, like my grandparents, have died, creating more vacancies. My own brother stopped coming to this dinner years ago, in the name of starting his own holiday traditions with his family (which usually involves him drinking a 30-pack and trying to assemble my niece's toys). We press on with the dinner--there's ham and turkey, and I insist on sampling the flesh of each beast--and make the most of it. We have some laughs, because I sincerely enjoy my aunts and uncles. Let me tell you, there's real warmth at that table.

Yet I can't help but feel like there's something more than a little pathetic about me being there. Or rather, still being there. I've been coming to these dinners all my life. It's just me and a handful of my dad's gray-haired siblings, and the one cousin who is a year or two older than I am and who still lives at home with Aunt Barbara.

After dinner, as usual, we say goodbye to everybody, then make the hour-long drive back to my brother's house in the woods over snow-covered roads. My parents sleep on an air mattress down in the basement next to the pellet stove. I sleep upstairs in the guest bedroom--yes, I offer to trade with them each year, but they insist that they like it down there--quietly trying to level up in Cave Story on the DS before dozing off.

The holidays aren't easy, or restful for me. I look forward to them. But once they arrive, and worse still, once they pass, I without fail wind up feeling completely duped. There is no peace and no rest to be had during this reportedly peaceful and restful time. It's hell trying to travel back and forth across 3,000 miles--6,000 total for me--during the most terrible travel time of the year, all in the name of being one of two last people (me and the aforementioned cousin) who aren't married and have no families or holiday plans or traditions of their own or anyplace else to go. Worse still, it's painfully clear that neither of us have any prospects for any of those things in the near future.

For godssakes, I should be on my second goddamn marriage by now. I should have at least one divorce behind me, and a couple of adolescent kids who are forever reminding me that I have completely ruined their lives and that they hate me and need to borrow money. Instead, what I have are two semi-indifferent cats who I celebrate the holidays with each year on December 23rd by playing Christmas music on my laptop while waving their bird-fling toy at them until they collapse in wheezing heaps on the floor from exhaustion.

You don't have to tell me it's pathetic. I know.

Which is why I've decided to start my One Hundred Things That I Just Love So Much project. Here are one hundred things that have given me enormous amounts of pleasure over the years; one hundred things that, should they suddenly vanish from the planet tomorrow, my world, my life, would be a far drearier place without them.

The recipe for this list is as follows: wake up early each morning and sit at your laptop and come up with at least two or three items that you can add to the list. And, over the span of a few weeks of following this routine, voila YOU'VE GOT ONE HUNDRED.

The only downside is that if robbers ever broke into my apartment they would know exactly what to steal. Note to potential robbers: Nothing on the list has any real-world value. Most sane, well adjusted people probably wouldn't even want most of the things on this list.

One more thing: if January has you by the short hairs too, I suggest you follow suit and make your own list. Before you know it, February will be here. No, I don't have a plan for how to get through February just yet. One month at a time, people.

100. Portal - Valve first-person shooter/adventure/synapse-blowing game.
99. This American Life on NPR (any episode; http://www.thisamericanlife.org/)
98. Blood on the Tracks - Bob Dylan's 1975 album
97. First Person - a two-season TV series produced and directed by Errol Morris (If you see only one episode, make it "Leaving The Earth" with DC-10 pilot Denny Fitch.)
96. Superbad - Greg Motolla's 2007 movie
95. "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" - Joyce Carol Oates's 1966 short story
94. Freaks and Geeks - Paul Feig's short-lived 18 episode TV series
93. The Wall - Pink Floyd's 1979 album
92. Spicy Miso Ramen with chicken at Motomachi on Denman Street
91. Ball Four - Jim Bouton's incredibly funny 1970 baseball memoir

[I'll post the rest of the entries in increments in the coming days. Stay tuned.]

06 January 2011

That Glasses-Wearing Pig Can Go F*** Himself

The hardest, most challenging, most pain-in-the-ass-difficult game of 2010 was without a doubt Donkey Kong Country Returns.

Oh, the first few levels are peppy, brightly colored, old-school fun. Bananas fly everywhere, secrets practically reveal themselves. And the collectible K-O-N-G letters dangle like low hanging fruit.

But then things take a turn.

The cursing began for me probably around level three or four. The praying at level five. The despair at level six.

During each absurd jump in difficulty, I told myself, This won't last. I've played enough games over the years to know that developers typically include sharp difficulty spikes before giving way to breezier portions of the game. Yet each spike in difficulty in Donkey Kong Country Returns [DKCR] only led to subsequent, even steeper spikes in difficulty. In all my days, in all my years of enduring you've-got-to-be-kidding-me games, including every installment in the Ninja Gaiden series--which I adore, by the way--I have never been so emotionally, physically, and spiritually beaten down by a game the way that I was by DKCR.

Then, just when you think things can't possibly get any worse, a nude, glasses-wearing pig appears, waving a small, white flag in your direction. He is, of course, offering his "super guide" services. Which, from what I understand, consists of short how-to videos showing you how to do what you, according to the pig, cannot do. I looked at the super guide once and only once, in the name of research for this post. What happens is this: A white-haired version of Donkey Kong appears on the screen. Perhaps his hair has gone white from the sheer terror of the level he is about to demonstrate for you. He proceeds to do all the incredible things that need to be done--spectacular jumps, last-minute leaps, mine cart hops, enemy circumventing, etc. And then he vanishes--poof--as abruptly as he had arrived.

Now, Joe DiMaggio could rise from his grave, grab a bat and ball, and hit a 400-foot home run over the cemetery fence. "Good one!" I would say to the reanimated corpse of Joe DiMaggio. Yet that would bring me, personally, not one iota closer to possessing the ability to be able to hit a 400-foot home run. I could watch a video of an extremely smart person taking the SAT. Yes, he seems to be writing a lot, I would note. Yes, having a second sharpened pencil was a terrific idea. But watching the smart person would not improve my score on the SAT.

How merely watching White Donkey Kong do what you cannot do is supposed to help you, in a tangible way, is beyond me. Which leads me to believes that the super guide is included solely to make you feel even worse than you already do. Think you can't feel any worse right now? Super Guide says. Well, watch this video of an albino kong making it all look incredibly easy! See? Wasn't that helpful? It wasn't? Huh. That's strange. It was supposed to be helpful. But it wasn't helpful for you? Hrmm. Well, do you feel 10-percent worse about yourself after watching the super-guide video? You do? THEN MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!!!!!!

The one true way to survive the hell-on-earth experience of DKCR is not to view smarmy guides showing you how to do it. You must devote yourself to DKCR like a zen buddhist. You must forsake all worldly goods. You must end any current/on-going relationships with any women/men. You must draw the blinds, shut off your cellphone, forego personal hygiene (yes, you will grow a beard that will eventually make you resemble an Early Man exhibit from the Museum of Natural History), and laser focus all of your gaming powers on this single, solitary pursuit.

And even then, after all that, there's still a chance you might not make it.

I wantonly blew threw thousands of Kongs during my time with the game. I began referring to Donkey Kong Country Returns as "the one-up wood chipper." That's what it felt like some days: like I was simply feeding one-ups--Kong after Kong after Kong (after Kong)--into a buzz saw. Near the end, I wouldn't bother attempting a level unless I had more than 50 one-ups in the tank. Whenever I'd run low, I'd return to the game's early levels, "harvesting" bananas and collecting Koins to blow in Kranky Kong's stupid shop, all in the name of stocking up on one-ups.

Do I sound obsessed? Oh, I was.

And at least a small percentage of the blame for my obsession must be attributed to that flag-waving, f***-faced pig. I remember at point point, as I endured an especially trying stretch in the game, after yet another period of embarrassing failure, F*** Face showed up and frantically began waving his f*** flag at me. That is when I said the following words aloud, in my living room: "Eat shit, you piece of shit-eating shit."

Let me repeat that: "Eat shit, you piece of shit-eating shit."

Yes, DKCR inspired me to come up with that beautiful line of poetry (and countless others). Not since God of War's "would you like to change your difficulty setting to EASY" offer have I been so angered by a game's offer to help me, and by extension, so motivated to finish the game without any of the game's help at all.

I hauled the Wii to New York City with me over the holidays--I made room for it in my overstuffed suitcase--in the name of furthering my obsessive pursuit. Finishing the game, enduring the experience, had become the gaming equivalent of Ahab's white whale. I needed to see this journey to completion, no matter the cost to my well-being.

Yes, I finally finished Donkey Kong Country Returns. No, I didn't bother collecting the orbs in the bonus sadist levels. And by extension, no, I did not press on into the Golden Temple. Enough was enough. This game had already taken enough of my life away from me.

The game's final, brief cut-scene is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Not because it is beautiful. At all. It is brief and efficient and largely unsurprising. It's beautiful because the final cinema, symbolically, meant that the experience was finally over. I'd spent so many hours, and so many Kongs, in this borderline-futile pursuit, thinking that this moment might never come, despairing in the truest sense of the word. And when it did finally arrive, I felt like a man stranded on a desert island, one who'd long given up hope of ever being rescued, who had just spotted a rescue boat on the horizon with a topless Cheryl Tiegs at the helm, waving her bra in my direction. In my metaphoric fantasy, I would fall to my knees on the beach, tears streaming into my unkempt desert-island beard, thinking, "It's over. It's finally over."

I finished DKCR, but I can't explain exactly why I finished DKCR. Why did I expend all of this energy? Why did I subject myself to such--there's no other word for it--punishment? How did I become so obsessed? Why, frankly, did I bother at all?

It's hard to say.

Sometimes games come along and get under my skin, and stay under my skin, in a way that catches me off guard. Part of it, no doubt, is my allegiance to Rare's original on the Super Nintendo. I played the living shit out of that game for years, finishing it multiple times. So, a small percentage of my unhealthy pursuit can be attributed to pure nostalgia, to hearing those old songs again (what a soundtrack in this game!), to rocketing around in barrels, and to seeing characters again that I've been fond of for nearly 20 years now.

But a larger percentage, if I'm going to be completely honest, is that I sort of began to enjoy the sheer masochism of it all. I saw Danny Boyle's 127 Hours recently, which was alright, but wasn't the gut-wrenching, transcendent experience people had promised me it would be. I've never understood those people who are into climbing mountains and engaging in "extreme" pursuits, and as a result, I never have any sympathy for the people who, for example, die on Everest. You had a good idea of what you were getting into up there, folks. I have friends who are climbing Kilimanjaro next month. I've told them both, point blank, that if I have to go up there to claim their skeletons I will be beyond pissed off.

Maybe games like DKCR, in some ways, are small-scale versions of extreme pursuits. It's simply fun and satisfying to occasionally do something, to subject yourself to something, that most people can't do, or won't bother to do.

I admit, I did feel a little depressed after DKCR went back on the shelf. I moved on to Super Mario Galaxy 2, which I'm currently trying to complete. I'm at 70 Power Stars and counting. I've been a bit disappointed--in comparison to DKCR--by how easy it is. It's not an easy game by any means. Yet each time I locate a new Power Star these days, I think, So that's it?

I miss having my dexterity and, beyond that, my patience pushed to the limit. Stranger still, I've come to realize that I miss the despair of it all. Or maybe that's not quite right. It's not the despair that I miss. What I miss is the extreme degree of unadulterated, heart-squeezing elation I'd experience whenever I would do something as simple as making it to a subsequent checkpoint, or in extreme cases in the final levels of the game, simply making it through two or three seemingly impossible jumps.

I'd get there, arriving at a destination I thought I'd never arrive at, palms sweating, knees shaking, and I'd think: Now that's entertainment.

All of which can only mean one thing: that I have an upcoming date with the notorious Demon's Souls.

Cheryl Tiegs Rescue Boat: Looks like I'll be seeing you again, real soon.