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Trains, Planes, but No Automobiles: The Ultimate Travel!

Trains, Planes, but No Automobiles: The Ultimate Travel!

I’ve gotten a respectable distance through the United States. I’ve been from the extreme north to the extreme south, extreme east to extreme west. And here’s a kicker which people these days may not believe: My journeys to the extremes all took place on land. There were some buses and cars involved, but I’ve mostly become known for my primary reliance on a form of old-fashioned travel which is so forgotten that a lot of people don’t even realize it’s still around: Train. It was the Amtrak that opened up the vast expanses of America for me and allowed me to view and experience firsthand the sights we sing about in all our popular National Anthems.

This didn’t happen because I had anything against air travel, per se. Except my fear of heights. But I always knew that sooner or later, I was going to have to get over that. And when my sister got married, I found myself nestled on an Alaska Airlines flight to California asking “Is this really so much better than the train?” So let’s do this! Trains vs. airplanes. One day, I’ll learn.

Efficiency
The point of both trains and planes is to get passengers from one point to another. Now, everyone knows the fastest way between two points is a straight line, and that how airlines operate: They fly from point A to point B in the straightest line they possibly can. Furthermore, they can frequently make those flights in a matter of hours with minimal interference. Trains are land-based, and can only travel on sets of parallel rails, which means that if things are crowded, they can’t simply turn onto the next rail because it’s moving faster. Trains also move slower than airplanes – yes, they’re faster than cars, but they still take a matter of days to make trips airplanes cover in hours. Of course, you’re allowed to get off a train to stretch when it stops.
Winner
Airplanes. There’s virtually no way trains are superior to airplanes in pure efficiency. I saw very few delays in the airports that I was in, while trains will frequently get held up for the slightest of reasons: They can’t keep the tracks clear, there’s a shift change, the engineer channel-surfed into a rerun of Battlestar Galactica that he really liked. Furthermore, the primary train system in the United States – Amtrak – is a government-run passenger train which is forced to run on privately-owned freight tracks. If you can’t guess what gets the priority on the freight lines, you’re probably not an American. My first-ever train journey was delayed three times because of this.

Service
Good service can make a long ride a little bit more pleasant, and both trains and airplanes have certain kinds of service. Trains have their conductors, who walk from car to car taking tickets, writing down ticket information, and giving passengers notice of what stops are coming up next. Trains also have service exclusive to the dining and lounge cars – two different things – and they all excel at their jobs. All the dining car service I ever experienced was faster than The Flash; after placing my order, I had my hot food placed down within a few minutes. The lounges don’t have roving service, but the server standing behind the snack counter has always been very fast. Instead of a handful of different kinds of servants handling designated roles, airplanes make do with their flight attendants. The flight attendants are in the business of doing a little bit of everything, from handing out little trinkets to serving drinks and snacks as well as being a line of first aides who present safety procedures. It’s the flight attendant who greets you as you board and cheerfully sends you off after the flight. In between, the flight attendants perform all kinds of services, from giving out complimentary snacks to taking food orders to cleaning up your garbage. And they all do it with a politeness which is almost superhuman.
Winner
Much as I like the service on the train, the flight attendants take this one because they’re asked to do a more impressive number of tasks in a much smaller space. Flight attendants are the be-all-and-end-all on an airplane. Not only that, but they also bring the service to the passengers rather than standing in one place so the passengers have to get up and approach them. Also, I frequently found myself looking to them for how calm they are in the face of everything a flight can go through. After all, they make their living on the airplane, so they’ve seen it all.

Terminals
If you have to wait, you should at least be comfortable while waiting, right? And trains have stations that resemble palaces in certain locations. The train station in Albany is a modern glass and steel structure with all the amenities of a western skyscraper. Grand Central Station in New York City and Union Station in Chicago offer giant underground networks filled with restaurants and kiosks, comfortable waiting rooms, and even vehicles which span for several blocks and protect travelers from the elements. Unfortunately, those fortresses are rare, and if you’re in some backwoods outpost like Rugby, North Dakota, or Elyria, Ohio, your train station is more likely to resemble a quickly-assembled tool shed. Its amenities will include virtually no security, bathrooms which offer no reason to trust them, and a few vending machines. And there are cities with the aforementioned palace stations that don’t even have their palace stations anymore: Buffalo and St. Louis both ran train stations which were art deco masterpieces before they were left to decay. Both have been rescued, but Buffalo is struggling to find a new purpose for its old station while the St. Louis station is nothing more than an odd gathering of random food outlets and small outlet stores. Airplanes park at airports, which take up enormous tracts of land and provide an aesthetic beauty which is less than underwhelming. Douglas Adams once wrote that it’s no coincidence that in no language exists the phrase “as pretty as an airport,” and he was dead on. Airports are built more for functionality, and that makes up for their ugliness. Most airports offer a bevy of places to eat and buy newspapers and souvenirs. More importantly, an airport can hold several different flights going to many different places at the same time, while the average train station will be a single train stop for five minutes while some people get on and others get off, which is why there are so few trains that go in and out of any given city per day.
Winner
Airplanes. The good train stations are too few and far between, and they’re actually becoming less common with fewer people taking long-distance train rides. In any case, even the largest train stations can hold a handful of trains at once. Airports have a lot of terminals and are built to get a lot of people to their flights. Airplanes aren’t as large as trains either, so airports are built to be convenient for a bunch of different airplanes to dock at the same time.

Price
Prices on both the train and airplane tend to shift according to how many people are traveling. I’ve seen prices for both run close to $300 for round trips. The difference is that for the train, a price like that could take you across the country while an airplane ticket with that price tag could take you a couple of states. Oh, and there are these other differences too: After you pay the ticket price for the train, that’s the end of all monetary transactions unless you decide to buy the food on the train. Otherwise, you show up at the station, collect your ticket, get on the train, get off the train, and that’s that. With airplanes, the ticket prices tend to waver a lot more on a day by day basis. Then you go to the airport, and pay to have the pass printed, and to have your luggage checked, and to get most of the food. Although I did notice that the airplane food you have to pay for is cheaper than the train food.
Winner
Train. Maybe you could make an argument that the airplane offers better advantages for the higher prices, but given unlimited time and money, do you think that’s going to matter? Cheaper is going to be better in most cases, and the train is one of them.

Sightseeing
There’s a reason trains and airplanes have windows: It’s so the people traveling can get some sweet views of the outside scenery. The great thing about airplane windows is that there are covers which easily slide over them if you think too much sun is getting let in. Trains have curtains, but they’re a pain in the ass to move. Airplanes offer some incredible views which you’ll never find anywhere else – if you overcome the height, you’ll get to see entire coastlines, whole mountains from above, and big cities which you can cover with your hand. It offers a chance to see things in an entirely new way. The view from the train is dramatically different. It offers more of a pioneer point of view as it takes travelers, ground-level, over expanses of land which a lot of people will never get to access in their cars. Trains tracks are built in a way which allows them to cover any kind of weird stretch of terrain, no matter how unlikely. The kinds of things they’ve done with steel rails are still things no one has really attempted to do with asphalt, because a train needs only a narrow confine to move around, and that leads to incredible sights as travelers are taken across swamps, along canyon bottoms, and even through cities.
Winner
Trains. While an airplane can give travelers a unique view from above, it offers its best upon takeoff and landing. At some point, the level is just about perfect, and that can be before the airplane levels out. Also, train travelers don’t have to try to look through cloud cover the way airplane travelers do. There’s a lot more to see, and you can easily view the little details which lend color and artistry to the landscape. But what really takes points away from the airplane here is that the best views of the scenery are only available to the people next to the windows. This isn’t a problem on trains, where windows are very large and you can head to the lounge for a view of everything the surrounding scenery has to offer.

Food
Trains serve both regular meals and snacks, but they use two different cars to do so. The lounge car offers several snacking staples – a little alcohol, pop, and some small, cheap, handheld sweets. They also offer more lunch-like treats like burgers and hot dogs, but those are wrapped up and thawed in the microwave. In my book, that makes them no good, since parts of them stay frozen anyway. The food in the dining car is actually pretty good, and served nice and hot. And in all honesty, Amtrak serves one of the better cups available anywhere. Airplanes serve complimentary snacks and drinks – at least some of them do. They also have full meals available, but the trouble with this category is that I haven’t eaten a full airplane meal. I’ve heard the food in first class – which I’ve never flown in – is much better than the food in whatever non-first class is called, but having never eaten either, I don’t think it would be fair for me to judge the nice train food against a couple of bags of mini-pretzels.
Winner
Incomplete. Ask me again after I’ve made a longer-distance flight. Actually, I’m just including this for completion’s sake – I tend not to order full meals during lengthy travels. Even on the main leg of my journey to the west, I subsided mostly on a loaf of bread from Whole Foods and Amtrak’s coffee.

Comfort
The most hated and disrespected form of long-distance travel in the country is probably the bus. There’s a reason for that: Buses are cramped, loud, slow, and have very little space to move around. Imagine that same atmosphere in the sky. Okay, that’s not fair to airplanes – airlines do everything they can to make the flight more pleasant than any bus ride will ever be. They offer refreshments, and the flight attendants are always around in case you need anything. But that doesn’t change the fact that airplanes have to cram a lot of people into a small space, and there’s going to be a little bit of discomfort on a few levels like that. The seats tend to be on the smaller side, it’s difficult to walk out of your row, and having your carry-on bag by your feet can make you feel a little cramped. Trains, well, the dining cars don’t have a whole lot of space available, so you may sometimes be asked to share a table with someone you’ve never seen before. And like on airplanes, there’s a risk of slamming your head against the overhead compartment. Airplanes seat people three to a row, unless hey paid for a first class ticket, in which case it’s a roomier two to a row. Trains offer two to a row in coach, with large seats and sizable spaces to get in and out – which train travelers use to move around in the car quite often. The aisles on a train are significantly larger, and two people can easily get around each other. And although trains don’t call it that, they do offer a first-class spot for people willing to pony up the cash; it’s called the sleeper car.
Winner
Trains. There isn’t a spot I can think of where airplanes are more comfortable than trains. Even the first class goodies on airplanes don’t come off as any more comfortable than the average coach seat on a train. Furthermore, the room trains have is important on long trips, where passengers will want to get up and stretch their legs a few times. Even if a passenger feels crowded in a seat, they can easily get up and spend a few hours in the lounge car reading, using the internet, or watching the world go by. Airplane passengers also have more engine noise and turbulence to deal with, while the train is almost silent and makes little more than gentle rocking motions.

I don’t intentionally write these things to be ties, you know. I try to be as honest and objective as possible, even if my preference isn’t what comes out on top. (That was the case in my Cleveland vs. Buffalo sports curses post.) But, for a third time, I’m not able to place one above the other. Airplanes and trains both have their merits.

Sebastopol

Sebastopol

My little sister got hitched and I took on an insane onslaught of new experiences in a year which was already full of them.

My sister’s engagement went for awhile, so I had known there was going to be a wedding somewhere down the pipeline. But the where and when didn’t pop up until earlier this year. Now, between my schedule and current location, I never let myself fall into the mindset that getting to my sister and brother-in-law would be easy. But when my sister revealed the location during one of our online conversations, my heart dropped a little bit. It was going to be in Sebastopol, a little resort village in California. Wanting to be the well-prepared traveler, I immediately started looking up any information I could find on Sebastopol. A few pieces of key information popped up: Two hotels, both too expensive for me to stay in. And Sebastopol was some 50 miles out from San Francisco and Oakland, ruling out my usual travel routine of a nice hostel and the learn-as-you-go method of navigating the public transit. Santa Rosa was a more reasonable ten miles down the road, but there were no major travel hubs there, and the lodgings weren’t going to be any better.

At some point, I wondered what kept the two of them from having their wedding in a more convenient location, like Antarctica. Was McMurdo Station all booked up for the summer?

The problem of where I was going to stay wasn’t even the first obstacle in front of my face. The first was reserving the necessary time off from my brutal work schedule, which turned out to be much easier than expected after I told them what I was missing Prime Week for. The main problem was that I didn’t want to be returning home only to have to force myself through one of my 15-hour nighttime workdays right after my arrival. I got around that by placing the entire working week on hold, but that presented yet another problem: Doing that left very little wiggle room for me to, you know, arrive there, because it meant I would still have to work for the whole week leading up to the wedding. My options for outbound travel were left between the frying pan and the fire: Either finish up my final shift of the week and make a bum rush from work to the local terminal, or wait for the next day to arrive in the nick of time, save the day, and be the big damn hero. Given the travel times, it looked like I was going to have to drag my luggage to work. Then a chat with my brother-in-law finally spelled out the truth: My preferred method of travel was always the train, and that was too slow and unreliable in the time crunch I was facing. There was only one way to get me into Sonoma County in time for the festivities, and it entailed leaving the ground.

I’m a seasoned traveler. I’ve seen a pretty wide area of the country, and I have somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 travel miles under my belt. Not a single one of them was by air, because the prospect of air travel was pretty scary to me. You get pressure-locked inside of a giant sardine can flowing with one of the most flammable liquids ever created and suspended 30,000 feet in the sky. If evolution had the sense to create birds the size of tractor trailers, it might make a bit more sense to domesticate them, but it didn’t. One of my goals for the near future is international travel, so I always knew I would have to face my fear of flight, but that didn’t mean I would be Spartan about it. Brother-in-law said this would be just about perfect for my first real experience with air travel.

“It’s just a two-hour nonstop flight from where you are,” he said.

I finally had to concede. “I’ll have to get over it some time, so I guess now is as good a time as any. Besides, I’ve already been doing a lot of things for the first time this year,” I said.

“That’s the spirit!” said my sister.

Also, I would have to rent a car or rely on a three-hour bus route – best case scenario – and several busses being on time in order to get there. That presented yet another obstacle: Either hope I get on all the right busses and that everything arrives on time or face the California freeways without a navigator.

My first step was to secure a place to stay. I wasn’t keen on throwing a ton of money at a hotel, but my sister found some airbnb links to spots to stay right in Sebastopol. I liked what I saw, opened an account with airbnb, filled out my information… And learned that my computer and the airbnb website just don’t care for each other very much. I never got to the reservation confirmation screen, or received a confirmation email, and when I brought the issue to the attention to airbnb customer service, they said I didn’t have an itinerary to speak of. So I couldn’t make the booking on my computer, and I’m obviously not going to fill out the information they needed in the middle of the public library. Fortunately, my sister found links to a similar site called VRBO, and once again, I found a place I liked. And it was booked solid. So once again, I found another place on VRBO that I liked, and lucked out when I saw that it was not only available, but a double booking had given me a cheaper price when the people running it said they had to put me in their camping trailer rather than their cottage. They didn’t accept credit cards for the site, either, so I would have to send them a check, which they would return when I got there with the proper cash. Booking took days because I had to use snail mail, but it went smoothly. Unfortunately, I waited until the booking was confirmed before making my flight and car reservations, which left me with higher prices to pay. The flight and rental car websites both took my information without any weirdness, although I was on the phone with my sister the whole time because I didn’t want to get slapped with a charge for something I didn’t actually buy.

My sister gave me a rundown of what to expect when you’re new to flying, which was helpful when the big day arrived. I arrived at the airport about two hours in advance, and learned pretty quickly that my sister had made everything sound more complicated than it actually was. The process of getting to my plane was easy:
1 – Print ticket.
2 – Hand baggage over to baggage people.
3 – Go through security.
4 – Find gate.
5 – Find food and coffee, sit down, and relax while waiting for boarding to begin.
I called my sister, per her request, once I was on the plane. Things were smooth right up until the plane reached the beginning of the runway. That was where the engine started revving up for the flight, which in turn caused my heart to rev up like Pepe Le Pew’s whenever he spies his weekly l’amour. As the plane then sped down the runway, I was glued in place by some combination of g-forces and fingernails digging into the armrest. And… The plane left the ground. THE. PLANE. LEFT. THE. GROUND. I couldn’t seem to distract myself from that, so during the flight, I kept myself occupied with my iPod and a Neil Gaiman comic book my sister and brother-in-law gave me. I also made a habit of glancing at the flight attendants; not because of the typical reasons, but because they made their careers on airplanes and likely had experienced everything a typical flight could put them through. It stood to logic that if they weren’t panicking, there was nothing to panic over.

Everyone has heard a million times that flying is safer than driving. Whoever said that had to be from California. Of course, anything would have to be safer than driving in California. Trying to stick to a set of directions I had hand-written from Google Maps, I began my drive to Sebastopol by getting on the I-880 in the wrong direction, zipping past two or three exits, and getting off to ask directions at the closest gas station. Returning to the I-880, I had a brief flashback to my first visit to St. Louis, when my friend Kevin handed me his Dad’s car keys with the instructions to take the car several miles down the road – at night, in a place I had never seen before and had been in for less than a day – to grab a handful of stage props he left in his wife’s car. I performed flawlessly, but that was a straight shot down the road for five miles. This was 50 miles of twisting and turning through express traffic and semi-rural scenery. After getting lost five times and stuck in traffic three times, I finally arrived in Sebastopol.

By the time I got to my VRBO location, the rehearsal dinner had been going for two hours at someplace called the Hopmonk Tavern, so now I had to get back in the car after a drive that already ran nearly six hours and push for another half hour, the last ten minutes of which was spent trying to find a parking spot. I think I was the last one to show up. After missing a phone call from my concerned mother just as I got there and greeting her and my sister, I put together a plate of food and dug in with gusto, as my food intake for that day so far had consisted of a breakfast bagel with coffee before my flight and a small bag of mini-pretzels courtesy of Alaska Airlines. The rest of the night was a rousing round of who-are-you. My sister had friends coming in from quite a few different places, many of whom had met me before in pasts both distant and not-so-distant. I’m horrid with names, and sometimes I can be pretty bad with faces, but I did remember everyone who said they already met me before. They had all heard right: Why yes, today WAS my first-ever airplane flight!

Wedding day started with a nice walk through downtown Sebastopol, where I looked for a nice joint to eat a decent breakfast. After finding Hole in the Wall, I took a walk for a few blocks of Main Street before returning to my VRBO place to rest up for the wedding. My hosts were excellent with giving out directions, but their sense of time seemed to be a little off. The wedding was going to be in Armstrong Woods, a state-sanctioned redwood forest just outside of a nearby little town called Guerneville. Between the way my sister talked about it and the way my hosts told me how far away it was, I figured that “nearby” was the Buffalo definition of the word: Hamburg being two towns south. I didn’t count on Guerneville being nearly an hour down the CA-116. After failed phone calls to my parents, I headed out at nearly 2 PM and arrived at Armstrong Woods just on time, but faced a three-quarter mile hike to the wedding spot. Fortunately, my new in-laws spotted me and gave me a ride into the meadow where the wedding was taking place.

My sister and I aren’t big on tradition. And weddings, well, the whole idea of a church wedding in front of a community is a relic of the ancient past, and not a good one; to me, the whole idea comes off like something a community would believe is done for it. Weddings, to me, have always been personal expressions of the couple getting married, and that’s what my sister and brother-in-law went for. Both of them love being outdoors, so being in a meadow, among the trees and animals they both love, seemed appropriate. The ceremony was simple – the Minister of the ceremony made a funny and touching speech about why the two of them are perfect for each other, they exchanged rings, said their I Do’s, and just like that, I had new family members. There was no communion, no bridesmaids, no best man, none of that silliness of someone being given away, and I think I spent more time admiring the redwoods than watching the ceremony. Even the flower girl forgot to throw the flowers.

There wasn’t any more tradition at the reception than there was at the wedding. The bride and groom didn’t give their own table any prominence above the others. They stood up and greeted the audience, but that was it. Again, there was nothing there to make the party any more complicated than it had to be: Garter removal, first dance, first pieces of cake – hell, cake itself – honorary toast, and bouquet toss – there was no bouquet either – were axed, and everyone let their hair down, socialized, and enjoyed themselves. I ended up hitting it off pretty well with my new in-laws, especially the husband of one of the sisters, because he was an avid soccer fan. A lot of us took turns swinging on a large rope suspended in a tree for no particular reason. When the party was over, it still didn’t seem late enough, so the group of us that was left walked back to the Hopmonk Tavern for drink, music, and more general merriment. There was a reggae/ska band called Pacific Soundrise playing, and it was here that I discovered that having a sister who was the bride could mean all access. No one paid anything to get into the show, and several of us stood up, listened to the music, and kept on dancing the night away. A few people noticed my outfit and wondered why I looked like such a professional.

The next day brought the final event of the wedding weekend: Brunch! Taking place at a park, it was another stripped-down event. I talked to more people and walked around. A few of us went on a short walk on one of the paths. I was invited to see a couple of other places, but I got lost pretty early on and my phone is crap for reading directions by text message. So I spent the day with my parents in downtown Sebastopol again, looking at musical instruments – including a $10,000 custom guitar whose maker let me play it briefly and an enormous bongo drum that stood up to my chest – and books. Afterward, we met my sister and brother-in-law for dinner before visiting the house where my new in-laws were staying, watching the scenery, watching baseball, and playing endless games of corn hole – you know, getting to know each other better.

That was it for the weekend. I raced back to Oakland the next day to get my rental car in and ended up catching my flight just in time, while my parents headed back to Buffalo and my sister and brother-in-law went to Hawaii. It had been one hell of a weekend.

Welcome to the family, everyone.

Tabletop Games vs. Electronic Games: The Ultimate Games!

Tabletop Games vs. Electronic Games: The Ultimate Games!

Games are one of life’s simple pleasures. We all love the big outside escapes – travel, movies, museums, arts and culture events, things like that. But those things tend to cost money and take time, and so games provide everyday escapes from the skullduggery of work, chores, and daily news. Games are fun to play, they take your mind off the rest of the world for a few hours, they can bring people together, and you can use them to learn about basic principles of sportsmanship.

The kinds of games available can be drawn into two different categories: Tabletop games and electronic games. Tabletop games are basically games that can be placed on a tabletop so everyone playing can have equal access to the equipment. They are probably better known as board games, but calling them board games tends to leave out various card and dice games. Electronic games are games that are hooked up to a television or computer. Many of them can be played online.

As many people know, I grew up pretty well-versed in the ways of both, but had a clear preference for electronic games. I spent seven years as a critic of electronic games, but tabletop games were recently reintroduced into my life and I started thinking about which type of game is better. So let’s do this! Tabletop games vs. electronic games. One day, I’ll learn.

Gameplay
Remember that I said games can be used to teach the basic principles of sportsmanship? Yeah, if you play a lot of tabletop games, that’s something you’re going to be learning plenty about. Tabletop games require you to have a good sense of humor about defeat, because even a lot of games where you get a significant amount of control over the game’s universe require good, hard luck. It doesn’t matter how much you understand about the laws of probability – if you’re playing a card- or dice-heavy game, you’re going to fall victim to some weird masterstrokes of fortune. The more complex the game, the more odd luck can get. Games like Dungeons and Dragons add an extra dimension with the sheer details they throw in – Dungeons and Dragons itself is famous partially for the number of 12-to-20-sided dice it includes in a package. While little novelties like that are intended to tip the odds, you’re still not allowed to find your favorite number and plop the die down with it facing up, and that can result in things like a dwarf with two hit points charging through a small army of ogres. (That was something that happened to me once playing Dungeons and Dragons.) Electronic games can also require a certain amount of luck. Back when video games were first starting out, one hallmark was the fact that developers were constantly throwing in little glitches and obstacles made to ensure the game always had the advantage. That meant gamers had to deal with traps in scrolling games meant to throw off any sense of rhythm, which could place a gamer in a precarious situation. Other games were loaded with dead ends and unfair traps which the people playing had no way of knowing about in advance, and to make those matters worse, some sadistic developers would randomize those things, which meant a gamer would put a lot of hard work into getting into the game only to get locked in some inescapable room on a deep run. Electronic games also utilized keyboards and controllers instead of dice.
Winner
Electronic games. Although unfair little gameplay quirks will always be a trademark of electronic games, they’re not showing up nearly as often now, while tabletop games are always depending on the luck of the draw or the roll. Besides, having direct control over a video game character through a controller can mean that someone truly skilled will always have a chance. That’s not the case on tabletop games. Yes, there are degrees of skill required to play tabletop games well, but unless you’re sticking to one of the old school staples like checkers, chess, othello, or go – which don’t depend on luck – you’re always going to be reliant on elements of gameplay that are out of your control.

Social Bonding
Despite their competitive nature, a good game can help cement a bond with people you know and create one with people you don’t. This can be especially apparent with tabletop games, because any tabletop game worth its salt requires that you have other people around to play against. (Unless you like to play solitaire.) Unfortunately, that can also be a great weakness for the shy and introverted: In order to really enjoy a good tabletop game, you have to be able to coax others into wanting to visit you to play. Electronic games can also be a source of fun for friendships; even after the game is turned off, a great game can have friends talking strategy and tactics for hours afterward. And while their solitary nature allows them to be enjoyable for a single person, our increasingly online world actually opens up the outside for those willing to take the time to learn online gaming, because it allows people to connect with others anywhere in the world. It’s not unusual these days for real-life couples to say they first met in the online world during a game of Everquest.
Winner
Tabletop games. Yes, it’s possible to meet people online, but there’s the reverse of that as well: Online gaming has become a source of bullying and sometimes crime. There are a thousand different stories of friends and couples who met online, but the faceless nature of electronic gaming has given rise to forms of blatant sexism, racism, and other bad -isms which have discouraged potential gamers who were dabbling in a new hobby. The Gamergate movement exists because of people who believe electronic games are the exclusive domain of a very particular type of person (think a Y chromosome and a low melanin level); they’ve taken to attacking, insulting, and threatening anyone different from them – roughly half the population – for the crime of having an opinion. You never heard of behavior like this developing from tabletop gamers.

Storytelling
It’s hard to find a good story in a tabletop game, but not impossible. Hell, when I was a kid, I loved a role-playing game called Hero Quest, which became a sort of gateway to Dungeons and Dragons later on. Hero Quest had defined good guys and bad guys who were thrown into various scenarios for reasons told in the fashion of a linear story by a game master who knew the ins and outs of the scene. The game master always had the most access to the story, and would slowly reveal it over the coarse of the game. Electronic games operate on much the same principle, except there aren’t any players there to reveal the narrative – it’s done by the game as you advance. In both formats, the players make choices which are supposed to affect the story, but electronic games were a bit slow to catch on to that aspect of it; the earliest electronic role-playing games were set strictly on rails. You simply walked through the game as any other and tried not to die. Tabletop role-playing games offered a bit more flexibility because it would be possible to find the right piece of information through communication with the game master. Electronic games didn’t have that – you got the information the game felt like giving you, which would only loop itself if you tried to press the issue. If you didn’t have a strategy guide, you were shit out of luck. Of course, not every tabletop game had a story. A lot of the classics just brought people together to play. Electronic games might seem to have an advantage here then, but they didn’t have a lot of story either. Games like Pong, Frogger, and Pac-Man never even bothered. What little bits they had as stories were nothing more than objectives.
Winner
I’m going with tabletop games on this one. Yes, electronic games are evolving and very much improved on the way they tell their stories and interact – Fable II has become a favorite of mine. But you’re still at the mercy of a game which isn’t going to tell you any more than it’s programmed to know. Tabletop games can be easier in reveals and puzzles if you’re able to figure out the right way to communicate. Also, I should note tabletop games don’t make use of arbitrary and unobtrusive bits of debris to prevent you from reaching your goal, either. That’s one of the great banes of being an electronic gamer for a few reasons, not the least of which is because it’s so fucking stupid. But the bottom line here is that your personal decisions have a greater impact in the world of a good tabletop game while even many of the best electronic games stop updating the current events halfway through.

Playing Equipment
A complex tabletop game can turn into an OCD sufferer’s worst nightmare. Boards, cards, dice, and figures are often parts of the most basic game setup. That’s no frills here – I’m not even considering the many pieces of equipment that can get thrown into games with 3D settings. Lots of the little accessories needed to play a good tabletop game are small and easily losable. And every time you want to go out and buy a new game, you get a whole new set of more losable equipment meant to go with that game and no other! So you would think the victory for electronic games here would be automatic. And 20 or even 10 years ago, it might have been – you get one CD or cartridge which contained literally everything on it. No need to worry about losing a piece or 13. But with the technology advancing, it started getting a bit more complex than that. If you play your electronic games on computers, you have to make sure the specs are just right, then go through the pain-in-the-ass process of downloading it. That’s called “installing” the game. Taking the time to learn the various keyboard and controller functions can also be a bit of a chore, and the games themselves try to rob you of the fun of learning yourself because they’re increasingly involving mandatory tutorials which can’t be skipped. If you want to play on the internet, you have to buy an expensive piece of equipment that enables it.
Winner
Electronic games. For all the bullshit you have to go through of buying all the equipment and installing the game, most of it is a one-time purchase. And you don’t have to worry about all your little knickknacks being inside the box once you decide you’re finished playing. It’s just a little on/off switch. Yes, electronic games cost more, but it’s worth the price to make sure you don’t lose anything because some poor loser swept the entire board off the table.

Replayability
So you finished a game and thought it was good. That doesn’t necessarily incentivize an immediate second play through. There have to be enough different ways to go about playing through a good game to warrant replays. And tabletop games shine at this: You can always find new people to play with who see things differently and force you to innovate and invent new ways of playing. Luck can always swing from one player to the next, and how the player on the hot streak plays can turns everything in a whole new direction. Video games also offer incentives to replay them: Some have secrets to find, some have different levels to challenge you, and some have variations in the gameplay. Of course, the differences in tabletop game replayability depends on who you have playing, and electronic games have it based on the gameplay itself – some games offer direct decisions on exactly what you can do.
Winner
Tabletop games. Electronic games can only have so much replayability. Games where your actions really affect the surrounding world are a very recent development, and even many of those get a lot of flack for not changing enough. And before them, electronic games were basically rote memorization of patterns. The early attempts at being nonlinear were noble, but all they offered was the same scenery in a different order.

There will always be a place for electronic games, but tabletop games are throwing them off the hotel balcony.

Letter to 12-Year-Old Me

Letter to 12-Year-Old Me

I’m sure a lot of us, when we were kids, had to do those cutesy little school assignments where we wrote letters to our future selves. After reading reading the popular blog Hyperbole and a Half, I decided to take a page from writer Allie Brosh’s book and offer a response to my young self who wrote a letter to my older self. However, I can never remember exactly when I wrote those letters and at what age, so I’m going to simplify this whole thing by writing a single response to myself at one of the most defining – and worst – ages of my life. My 12-year-old self is probably where I started to fall into a rocky road mentally because it was where the mental obstacles I faced probably hit their apex and where I could have used some real advice and guidance by someone who understood what was happening, and the fact that I was extremely impressionable and clueless.

Dear 12-year-old me,

You need to quit worrying about how to suddenly make yourself cool to your classmates. They’re assholes. Every last one. And at least half of your teachers aren’t any better. Hell, last year the teachers at Follow Through let one of your classmates get away with blatant physical assault. I know that part is finally over, but let’s look at the roster of people you are forced to interact with every day in school: There was the one kid, Tim, who was actually one of your good friends until sixth grade, when he decided he enjoyed making fun of you with a group he fell into and left you out of. There are those two who you think were decent friends once upon a time, but they sort of led you down the path. It’s not good-natured ribbing when they make fun of you – it’s them trying to make you jump through hoops for their own amusement.

Your best bet is to transfer to a different school. I know that’s a scary prospect, but you’re going to be doing that in a couple of years no matter what happens anyway, so why not? I know you’re worried about your social life, but that’s not exactly storming the beaches these days. So get the hell out. Make a fresh start. Considering what you’re going through, the evil you don’t know is a far better option than the evil you know. The deck is stacked against you there, and like I said, even the teachers don’t give a shit.

Speaking of terrible teachers, I can’t stress this enough: Quit listening to Pastor B in confirmation class. Nice man, well enough; but all he’s doing is selling you a bevy of half-truths and outright lies in an effort to scare you and warp you into his own way of thinking. Don’t worry about the prospect of more parent/minister chats. Fuck how much they annoy your parents. You don’t owe either of them jack shit for making you go through this. If anything, you should be doing MORE to piss off Pastor B and force more private conferences. The man is a walking boob who is selling snake oil, and what’s more, Mom and Dad both KNOW he’s a walking boob who’s selling snake oil. To this day I still haven’t the slightest idea of why they believed shoving me through confirmation class was so important. It was a waste of their time, an inexcusable waste of my time, and you ended up coming out all the worse because of it. In fact, a better thing to do is just refuse to keep going to confirmation class until they give you a satisfactory answer to the question of why you are being forced through it. “It’s traditional,” “It’s what young men do,” and “because I said so” don’t fucking count. Your parents were great, but sending me to confirmation class was a stupid thing to do back then, and considering what you’ve gone through since, in hindsight it’s a galactic fuckup. And they both know it.

Confirmation class will only have bad effects that will hurt your social development. It’s going to fill you with a sense of guilt and self-unworthiness which you’re STILL trying to get over; it’s going to make you feel a sense of shame whenever you realize you have romantic and sexual feelings toward a woman, which will take you years to expunge; it’s going to turn you into a homophobe, which will also take years to get over. It will act as a suppressor to your inquisitive personality and you’ll start trying to swallow your questions and ideas. You’re going to notice the rift between religion and basic science and let it tear you apart. You WILL eventually meet a new minister who is going to act as your guide through the tricky aspects of religion and take your questions seriously without offering the usual platitudes about reading more Bible or Just Believing, but that won’t be for another 12 years. Right now, you can spare yourself a lot of self-resentment by embracing your doubts and questions. Challenge Pastor B, stand up and demand answers to his propaganda statements, and don’t be afraid to walk out of class when the situation calls for it. Again, your parents royally fucked up by sending you there, and it’s vitally important that you drive that point home right now rather than in another 20 years.

Now let’s concentrate on something your folks did get right: Man, you need to find something to do besides school and confirmation class that gets you out the door. Yes, I know video games and books are your escapes right now, but you need human contact. You also need something challenging to try so you’ll be more willing to develop the talents you have. You recently taught yourself to play the piano. By everyone’s accounts, you weren’t too bad at it, either. Maybe you could keep going along that route and become the master of an instrument it’s widely believed to take ten fingers to master. Django Reinhardt messed his fret hand up in an accident and still became arguably the greatest guitarist who ever lived. Rick Allen played drums after his goddamned ARM was ripped off in a car accident!

No, your hand is not an excuse. There are several things which may cause you trouble, but you won’t know what you can and can’t do until you actually try them. You’re creative, so act like it. If something requires fingers that you don’t have, find a way to improvise.

Lastly, don’t let yourself fall into a self-destructive mental state. I’ve been there; it’s not fun. You’re awesome. You aren’t some freak show – you deserve dignity, respect, and the right to a life. You deserve to be around people who like you for who you are and don’t care about some arbitrary birth defect which you can’t change. You’re going to realize all this someday; but that someday can come a lot sooner and make your life a bit easier if you start taking the advice I just gave you above.

Sincerely,
Yours Truly at 34

A Letter to the Grim Reaper

A Letter to the Grim Reaper

Dear Mr. Grim Reaper,

It’s time you and I had a little chat. We need to settle something: Among the famed and influential people you’ve taken from the world this year are David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Prince, and now Muhammad Ali. Ali is the only one among them whose time had been seen coming for awhile. He was 74 – early old age, and a longtime sufferer of Parkinson’s Disease. But Bowie and Rickman – whom you killed within a week of each other – were both in their 60’s. Prince didn’t even get that far. None of them deserved to head off into the Grey Havens early. In fact, they were all champions of good causes who showed the world that it was okay to be different and stand out.

How the hell are you coming up with the names on your list this year, Mr. Reaper? You can’t be pulling them out of a hat – the odds of all four of those names being pulled from a hat that large are astronomical. They have to be in the billions. You need to start picking off some worse people to balance this out. Here is a list of names I’m practically leading the cheers to see go down:

Gwyneth Paltrow
Okay, I can admit that it’s not her fault that she’s the daughter of actress Blythe Danner and movie producer Bruce Paltrow. But damn if she doesn’t know how to ride the Daddy’s rich little girl routine to its most extreme end. She earned my sympathy at one point by performing an experiment to see if she could eat healthy for a week with the kind of money that poor people make. Turned out the answer was no – no shit, tell us something we don’t know – but her behavior both before and after that makes me wonder if she wasn’t trying to whip up some exotic French three-course meal during that experiment. For god’s sake, she just made news for recommending a solid gold dildo which cost more than most peoples’ cars – and if they live in certain parts of the Rust Belt, possibly even their houses. She puts out a list of Christmas gifts every year which are beyond expensive. If you’re trying to live like her, you’re going to be torn every month between buying her favored jumper or keeping your roof over your head. I’m halfway convinced Paltrow is a distant relative of the Solomon family from Third Rock from the Sun.

Tom Brady
You know, I thought there was progress being made in the eternal war against the image of the All-American Golden Boy. We were beginning to realize that good looks come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. We were starting to appreciate the incredible athleticism that goes with other sports, including more cult ones like lacrosse. We were finally realizing that being a good person who does the right thing can have nuanced circumstances. But then here came Tom Cruise Sports Edition, pretty much embodying everything Grandmas want their granddaughters to marry. Tom Brady was cast in the same mold that also created all those evil movie jocks from the 1980’s that we hate so much. That would be bad enough, but there are a couple more details which make Brady the most insufferable version of the trope: The first is that we’ll never get to see him receive his satisfying comeuppance. Even with Rex Ryan having coached two of his divisional rivals, he always seems to survive an onslaught which should have killed other quarterbacks. The other is that he has given credence to Boston sports fans, who are the worst people on Earth.

Kanye West
Kanye West gets all the credit in the world as a creative genius. Of course, that’s only because he IS a creative genius. Just ask him – he’ll be the first to tell you so. Yeah, Kanye West plays the role of one of the world’s biggest divas. He’s one of those kinds of people who gets pouty is everything doesn’t go exactly right. Furthermore, can you think of any other celebrity who would try to peddle an undershirt for $120? That’s not even getting into his well-known award show rants, where he waltzes up to the stage, takes the microphone from an award winner like he owns it, and spends ten minutes rambling on about who the real winner should have been. As you can guess, most of the time, it should have been Kanye West.

Jenny McCarthy
So, given the choice between having your kid autistic or dead, what do you do? According to the anti-vaxxers, you let them die. Jenny McCarthy was apparently once a very smart student, but I think it’s probably time she asked the University of Google for a refund. McCarthy is the face of the anti-vaxxer movement, a farce started with bad research by a doctor who was disbarred 20 years ago, has no evidence to back it up, and is arguably a belief that goes with privilege. But McCarthy’s brand of lunacy predates her involvement with the anti-vaxxers: Before latching onto that, she was an outspoken proponent of the Indigo Child movement, even running a blog that served as a meeting site for Indigo people and even more special Crystal people. In other words, she’s a person who might be better off joining Scientology.

Mel Gibson
Oh Mel, what happened? He was one of the greatest and highest-paid action heroes in the world, but I can count on my deformed hand the number of other stars who fell so hard so quickly and ruined themselves. First of all, you can’t decline to call out your Holocaust denier pop. You also have to keep your id in check by at least trying to say when if you decide to drink. Bitching about the Jews is not only going to alienate a significant chunk of your audience, it’s probably going to piss off a lot of executives in Hollywood; after all, there ARE a good number of Jews in those positions. And being a devout Catholic while cheating on your wife makes you a hypocrite. Even when trying to pull himself out of his downward spiral, Gibson just couldn’t stop his foot from leaping into his mouth. This is really more of a mercy killing plea – Mel Gibson used to be one of my favorite movie stars before all this happened. Lethal Weapon, Mad Max, Braveheart, the man made some quality pictures. It’s one thing to screw up, but Gibson has made it impossible to take his side.

Those aren’t even the only ones I can think of. They’re only the ones I feel like listing off the top of my head. We know about ubiquitous reality stars, people who are famous for being famous, and loudmouthed pundits and bigoted politicians. They’re legion, and they all deserve to be escorted from this planet too. I don’t even have to mention any of their names. See, Mr. Reaper, the planet sucks to live on enough as it is. The people you’re knocking off this year are some of the types of people who make living here more bearable.

What’s stunning is that there are so many more of the worse people – and the indifferent ones – than the good ones. Some are stupid, some are evil, right wingers are usually both. Hell, there are famous right wing pundits in the United States right now who are openly championing slavery. (Who was it that defended it by saying it was “a full-employment system?” Yeah, please go kill HIM.) Isn’t Charles Manson still alive?

I know you’re just trying to get your own job done, but your hit list this year makes you look like you’ve been taking bribes from the Angel Mafia. And I don’t want to believe you’ve been doing that. You’ve had a sterling track record over the past few years. Yes, you’ve taken the good. We all miss Nelson Mandela, but Mandela was well into his 90’s and had led a long, full, and very productive life. But you also knocked off Osama bin Laden, Fred Phelps, and Kim Jong Il.

We need to see the bad people die too. I know you’re smart enough to understand balance. If we’re not getting enough balance, certain types of people will start to see your hit list as evidence that the bad people are the ones who are right.

See you around,
Nicholas

Branding UB

Branding UB

About the time I was starting out at the University of Buffalo, the university itself decided to undergo a rebranding. Understand that the name of the University of Buffalo is nicknamed among absolutely EVERYONE because its proper name is so long it’s obscene: The State University of New York at Buffalo. It’s the flagship campus of the State University of New York system – or SUNY – a large state-funded education blanket which is comprised of 64 different colleges. And The State University of New York at Buffalo was always shortened to match its original name, the University of Buffalo, to make it easier to fit into a headline banner. Well, the university wanted more publicity, so instead of highlighting the University of Buffalo part of the name, some new guy in charge of marketing – someone who wasn’t from Buffalo, wouldn’t you know it – decided it was time to highlight the NEW YORK in the name.

It didn’t go over well.

The idea was meant to try to draw attention to UB, so while it worked, it only worked in the most perverse of ways. While there were a handful of bloggers and online writers and UB alumni who backed it because the title screamed “NEW YORK,” the populace hated it. Hated, hated, hated, Hated, HATED it. And why not? It was an idea that counted on potential UB students being failures in geography and being recruited on the belief that they were going to be spending their nights in bars down in the OTHER New York. How dumb did they think people were? Didn’t they get the impression – any at all – that some student who took the bait would eventually make his way to downtown Buffalo and wonder where the Empire State Building was?

But here’s the thing: Buffalo looks at universities and colleges in a rather obtuse way. Less than half the population there holds any sort of college degree, and the city in general is a place where intellectualism gets snuffed out. Buffalo is a traditionalist stronghold, which keeps it trapped in a bubble of its own making. As I’ve grown accustomed to pointing out, the city graduated less than half its population from high school until recently, and even now the high school graduation rate is still pretty pathetic. Those who do graduate high school aren’t always in a hurry to run screaming off to college to earn their doctorates, either. They’ll learn just enough to know the different between tomato and tomahto, walk into the first call center with a Now Hiring sign in the window, and that’s it. The rest of life is marry the high school sweetheart, drink, raise kids, and hope the Bills bring home that elusive Lombardi Trophy. My joke that ambition in Buffalo means earning a high school degree isn’t too far off the mark.

So yeah, it felt like the city’s many institutions of higher education needed to cause a shakeup. UB went about it in the most extreme way it could think of, which was to latch on to the city that no self-respecting Buffalonian can stand.

Although the people in Buffalo are always keen to jump in support of their own civic institutions, UB can come off like a slap in the face. The people in the area who haven’t attended UB are in the habit of forgetting it’s there. Its location – the South Campus is right on the city’s northern border, while the North Campus is plopped in a distant no-man’s land in Amherst – certainly plays a role there. And the university’s athletic programs aren’t exactly the University of Michigan Wolverines. Hell, they’re not even the Huskies of the University of Washington or the Northwestern University Wildcats. Although they’ve been steadily improving and getting more attention as of late, the Bulls are still a mediocre team stuck in maybe the worst conference in college sports. And even with winning records, they don’t exactly have the world going for them. What be the problem? Let’s count the ways: Their campus might as well be stuck in the middle of the desert; the stadium has a football field surrounded by a running track, which doesn’t exactly lend itself well to intimacy; the bleacher section at Wrigley Field can hold more people; their primary rivals don’t realize they’re supposed to be our rivals; they don’t have any local media coverage – the fact that they’ve been aired on national TV several ties in the last few years is a miracle that Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad all gave up trying to perform; and their nickname is one letter away from infringing on the copyright of Buffalo’s NFL team.

It’s funny how it took an advertising campaign like this to remind the people of Buffalo just how much they love the University of Buffalo after all. It didn’t seem like the people of Buffalo were giving a whole lot of mind to UB until this came along. When they did, it was sort of an offhanded bone. Maybe the kids went there, or maybe one of the football players made big news while playing in the NFL, but it all went the same way: With someone claiming they love and support this institution, but not really thinking about it until the NEW YORK was given lettering bigger than the BUFFALO. So this whole project leaves me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I want to tell the University of Buffalo, “Well done!” On the other hand, I’m hoping the person who thought of it is shipped back to wherever he came from, where naming something after New York might work better.

To think, if the people of Buffalo had been paying attention to UB in the first place, this whole charade never would have been necessary. But I guess this is the sort of thing that happens when a city ignores its potential as a higher learning destination – even the stupidest and most degrading rebranding becomes a necessity, just so it isn’t left out of the peoples’ minds.

Proper NBA Loyalties for Fans in Buffalo

Proper NBA Loyalties for Fans in Buffalo

 

Okay Buffalo, it’s time we had that famous chat. You know the one: The talk about the Hawks and the Hornets. I know many of you follow the NBA, and an uncharacteristically good piece by Bucky Gleason in The Buffalo News recently might be causing new feelings to well up in a few of those who don’t. You’re going to begin noticing new teams, and it’s important that if you start to follow basketball, the team or teams you choose to support are the right ones, not simply the most convenient ones. And sadly, Buffalo, I see a lot of you shacking up with the convenient team – the Celtics. Sure, they look good and have a come-hither history and appeal. But you already KNOW they’re not the right team. I know they’re sexy: The spectacular fundamentals of Larry Bird; Bill Russell leading his team to 11 titles, including eight straight; 17 titles; the arguable greatest basketball coach ever, Red Auerbach. We need to get one thing straight, though: They’re from Boston, and you’re Buffalo. You’re the one city on Earth that, instead of trying to attract new residents by trying to convince them you’re as good as New York City, tries to attract new residents by presenting yourself as the polar opposite of New York City. And yet, you don’t have enough sports pride to stay away from those sports whores in Boston? The home of the team that you hate more than any other, the New England Patriots? And the Boston Bruins, who you also hate? And the Boston Red Sox, hated by Buffalonians with Yankees allegiances, which is probably around 65 percent of you?

Buffalo, you have a deeper and more complex history with hoops than most people realize. Two different NBA teams – the Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Clippers – kicked off their lives right in your backyard. And when you pick teams, your go-to-the-best approach makes every victory hollow and meaningless. You need to pick a team that exemplifies your ethos, or that you have a real connection to. I cheer for a grab bag of different teams, all for different reasons: The Philadelphia 76ers drafted a player, Damone Brown, who went to my high school; I lived in Chicago and have a remaining loyalty to the Chicago Bulls; New York Knicks games were an escape for me when I moved back to Buffalo, so I’m connected to them too; I admire the ethos and adaptability the San Antonio Spurs have constantly shown in becoming maybe the best team in the NBA; I started watching the Golden State Warriors after their upset of the Dallas Mavericks in 2007; and I just have a soft spot for the Portland Trail Blazers. None of those teams are the Boston Celtics, and do you know why? It’s because I have a respectful loyalty to my sports heritage. So without further ado, here are some alternative teams that people from Buffalo should consider adopting:

Brooklyn Nets
Let’s be honest: The Nets were a much more appealing choice back in 2012, in the buildup hype to the grand switch the New Jersey Nets made to the Brooklyn Nets. The Brooklyn name was seen as trade leverage and a strong free agent lure, the Nets had just made big trades for Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, and Carmelo Anthony was firing up the rumor mill. That doesn’t change a few things, though: One is that my Damone Brown ended up playing for the Nets at one point, so there’s a connection with a Buffalo native. More importantly, though, is the fact that the Nets can easily be imagined playing and representing anywhere in New York. Their look and style could play as well in Rochester or Binghamton as it does in Brooklyn, and their arena has that same kind of look: You could see it slapped in the middle of downtown Buffalo if the Sabres didn’t exist for them to share an arena with. As Buffalo tries to make itself stand out from the shadow of New York City, so do the Nets still fight with chips on their shoulders for attention from the older, more established, and more regal New York Knickerbockers. Buffalo, you ARE the Brooklyn Nets.

Cleveland Cavaliers
Okay, maybe the idea of adopting a team from New York City is a little off-putting. I don’t blame you. So if it’s a Buffalo-like place you’re looking for, I don’t think any two cities in this country hold a closer resemblance to each other than Buffalo and Cleveland. Hell, the two of you share a lot of the same vein of sports pain. Plus Cleveland is just a three-hour drive down the road, so who not do the sensible thing and call the Cavaliers your team? They have LeBron James, who is currently the best player in the NBA, so there’s that. After years of hard luck, they also appeared in the Finals twice in the last ten years, both times losing series which were effectively unwinnable. And their hard luck is another part of who they are – since bad luck affects Buffalo’s sports teams to the extent that Buffalo and Cleveland compete with each other over which one has worse sports luck, you can’t sit in Buffalo and pretend you’re going to just adopt a team because it’s the best if the teams you have skip town. No, if the Bills pick up and go, I know a great many of you will find solace in the Cleveland Browns, just because to god there is no zero. Also, the Cavaliers were created in 1970, the same year as both the Sabres and the old Braves.

Portland Trail Blazers
Not looking for a place with such strong Rust Belt connections? Well, the NBA has another good team for you! The Portland Trail Blazers entered the NBA in 1970, the same year as the Cavaliers and Braves – and, as mentioned, the same year the Sabres came into the NHL. If you want underdogs, the Blazers are a great team to support, with Portland sitting in the shadows of Seattle and Vancouver and people frequently forgetting the Trail Blazers exist. However, that doesn’t stop the locals from vociferously supporting the team and following the NBA in the hope of a second title. Okay, there are better sales pitches, but if a Buffalo connection would be one of them, there’s always Dr. Jack. Jack Ramsay coached the Braves through their best years before taking the reins of the Blazers and leading them to their first – and to date, still their only – title, a massive upset over the Philadelphia 76ers in 1977.

Philadelphia 76ers
In relative terms, the last three teams are a little on the young side, and maybe you’re interested in a team with a bit more of a pedigree. Pedigrees don’t come much stronger than with the Sixers. This is the team that invented modern basketball by thinking up the shot clock. It’s the team of Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Charles Barkley, and Allen Iverson. Aside from being the team that drafted Brown, the Sixers have another serious upstate New York connection: When they entered the world, they did so as the Syracuse Nationals, and were moved to Philadelphia after it became clear that Syracuse wouldn’t be able to sustain a professional major league franchise.

Detroit Pistons
Here’s your Buffalo connection: Bob Lanier. He’s a local legend with Bennett High School. Afterward, he became a legend at St. Bonaventure, where he led the Bonnies to the Final Four. While the Pistons have had an up-and-down life in the NBA, their up years tend to resemble the best years of the Bills – people stand up, look, and listen to the noise because they’re crazy good. When they’re not winning, they only get backhanded mentions on ESPN, are lucky to be featured in a national broadcast every three years, and are generally only spotted after a galactic screwup. If there’s another Bills allusion you want, the Pistons wear the same colors as the Bills – red and blue. But perhaps their biggest selling point is that they represent another downtrodden Rust Belt city; Detroit holds many of the same values as Buffalo and has the same sense of civic pride, both in what it once was and what it’s rebuilding itself to be again. The Pistons also have a history – they began in Fort Wayne, Indiana as the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons and predate the NBA. Their first two titles were won in 1944 and 1945 in the NBL, before the creation of the NBA; or the creation of the BAA, the league the NBL eventually merged with to create the NBA. There are also three NBA titles, all won with the same ethos of good fundamentals, smothering defense, and placing the good of the team ahead of the individual. On the downside, you may have reservations about cheering for the team of the infamous Bad Boys…

San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are the odd man out on this list; hell, I spent years hating (but admiring) them before being forced into an about-face during their duels against the Wade/James/Bosh Miami Heat. Their appeal to Buffalo is that they have long exemplified the teamwork ethos of the Pistons to much greater effect (they beat the Pistons for the 2005 NBA Championship) and, since Buffalo is not a place where people enjoy showboating braggadicio, their quiet, respectful, and professional manner is something to be emulated. Think of them as the Bad Boy Pistons with more stars and less bullying. When was the last time you saw a Spurs player make the news for blowing his top or committing a crime? That’s right. So good, and still low-key enough to be one of the most likable teams in the NBA. Even their fans don’t run around flinging shit. The downside is that that’s a pretty weak connection. The Spurs have no Buffalo connections. None. San Antonio is nothing close to Buffalo, and it shares its state with Dallas. Furthermore, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is the NBA’s equivalent to Bill Belichick – he’s a tactical mad genius who adjusts, adapts, and uncovers strengths and weaknesses with almost supernatural savvy. (Albeit, he’s Bill Belichick without the arrogance, or the drive against the league which frequently causes him to run up scores, or the cheating, or the lack of sportsmanship, but still.) The have one of the greatest players as their lynchpin with Tim Duncan. They routinely destroy every other team in the NBA, and are forever the league’s preeminent threat because all the guys who are supposed to get old just won’t fucking get old! Could they be… The New England Patriots? (A much nicer version of them, at any rate?)

Golden State Warriors
Cliff Robinson, who played in the NBA for 18 years, played for the Golden State Warriors from 2003 to 2005. He was born and raised in Buffalo and played his high school hoops at Riverside. Also, just before Steve Kerr started coaching the team, the Warriors were known as a lightning-fast, run-and-gun offensive team, much like the old Braves. It’s a pretty common thing nowadays to see sportswriters who saw both to compare the two of them. If you want a shout-out to a hockey team, the Warriors wear blue and gold as their colors and are the only team in the NBA to wear their jerseys like hockey jerseys, with the team logo prominently featured on the front.

New York Knickerbockers
Proximity is the name of the game here. Media proximity, at the very least; the Pistons, Cavaliers, Toronto Raptors, and maybe the Sixers are all closer by distance than the Knicks. But it’s the Knicks that get their games aired on MSG, the same network that shows Sabres games, and that makes them the easiest team to follow in Buffalo. In fairness, YES broadcasts Nets games, but that’s primarily a Yankees network, so you can figure out which team is getting the emphasis should there be a scheduling conflict. And MSG wants watchers to be familiar with the history of the Knicks – they always show old tapes of the classic dynasty of the 70’s (you DO old, Buffalo, your commitment to old keeps setting you back 20 years) as well as the best highlights of the Ewing era. And the way the team is being run these days will remind you of the way the Bills were run in the Tom Donahoe years and their aftermath.

Los Angeles Lakers
Are all those titles really THAT important to you? Fine. Here’s the Los fucking Angeles goddamned Lakers. Now go take a front-run on the Skyway.

 

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