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Author Archives: Nicholas Croston

The 2018 Extinct List

The 2018 Extinct List

When people ask us what we hate more than anything else, I’ll bet just about anything that we all give them the politically correct responses: War, poverty, disease, and other things like that. Well, yeah, of course you do. What responsible human being wouldn’t hate those things? But come on now! How much do things like that really affect you? You’re lying your ass off about that because those issues are OUT THERE, and you don’t have to worry about them affecting you day to day. No, the things we hate in this country are significantly more mediocre and unreasonable, but they have this habit of getting under our skins and grating us. Why? Because we put up with them! See, war and poverty and disease are hypotheticals in this country: We know they’re bad, but few of us are ever truly forced to reckon with them, and so we just don’t feel the visceral outrage over them that affects people who have to live around them. What are the things we REALLY hate? We can count some of the things on this list.

 

Slacktivists Who Constantly Bitch at Us by Telling Us About War and Poverty and Disease

Now, I have to mention something important: It’s probably for the best that we get reminded that major world problems exist. The news about them serves as a way to remind us of our place in the world and our duties and responsibilities as people who live in it. What I have in mind here is a very specific type of person who does it. And this person speaks about those subjects with their mouths more than through their actions. They come across as completely disingenuous for two major reasons: The first is because they’re speaking from a position of comfort and have never had to worry about those problems themselves. The second is because that talk is, in fact, nothing but talk. All too often, the person trying to be this self-righteous isn’t taking any action at all to address those problems. In fact, they may be consciously contributing to them.

 

The New York Times

The grand old newspaper! Old reliable! And you know what, it’s also extremely overrated and unworthy of its reputation. Now, I’m not going to be stupid and whine about biases here, but the New York Times has been caught red-handed half-assing its reporting, failing to report, embellishing reporting, plagiarising, and yes, reporting news that’s fake. Walter Duranty won a Pulitzer Prize despite denying Ukrainian famine back in the 1930’s. This was a case that was reopened in 2003 and confirmed. During World War II, the paper minimized reporting on the damned holocaust. It supported the invasion of Iraq. It reported rape charges that turned out to be false, employed Jayson Blair, screwed up widely known facts about a very popular video game… Yes, it won 125 Pulitzer Prizes and three Peabody Awards, but there are various times when The New York Times was got complacent and coasted on its reputation.

 

Missionaries

I’m sure your religion is a real ball for you. But you know what? I really don’t care. The quote that Christians love about going forth and making disciples of all nations yada yada yada… happens to be followed by another one that says not to impose what you’re preaching on people who reject it. The entire concept of missionary work is supremacist, and even Jesus himself thought so! Frankly, it’s bad enough to go out and be accosted by someone telling you that the only Way – capital W – is through JAY-ZUZ!!! But it’s worse that we’re sending people into other countries and trying to turn them into blind followers too. That’s saying you won’t like them until they’re more like you. Last I checked, that was a blatant form of racism, no matter what country you’re trying to do it in.

 

Waits for Major Professional Sports Expansion Teams

You know, there was one team back in the early NHL which went from concept to on-ice play in about a month. Now the process has gotten considerably stupider, or as I like to think of it, Bettmanized. City applies for team. City pays ridiculous fee. City prepares playing arena. League owners vote… Or something? And if the franchise is “awarded” to the city, the fans are stuck waiting for years to see something come up. In the meantime, there’s a naming contest and people buying season ticket packages and lots of other things. And all that is in the best case scenario. It doesn’t take into account that the league you’re waiting on has a weird history of trying to peddle its sport in places with no history of it and fanbases that are disinterested and barely know it exists and the league will probably end up rejecting your city’s bid because it just heard some non-caring place like Jackson, Mississippi doesn’t have a team yet and you bet your sweet ass I’m fucking bitter and impatient!

 

Buffering

Online videos are smoother than ever, yet they’re still in the habit of loading as they play. There’s not much more annoying than watching some great movie or television show that you’re now really caught up in, then having the thing just stop because your internet dropped down an arc thingy! And we all know how this is going to go: You’re going to sit there with a glowering look on your face, waiting around, until an hour later, you come to the realization that nothing is going to happen, so you have to restart the episode from the beginning. If you skip ahead, it has to buffer again, so you start working on something else for awhile until you know the part where the buffering took place is coming up. Then you eagerly get back to watching, and in that exact same spot, it starts buffering again! The absurdity of this is just mind-blowing. We’re long past the days of clunky dial-up connections. Hell, most people are getting their television, movies, and videos online now. Maybe it’s time to find a better way to run videos, you know?

 

Pop-up Ads

Another favorite online pet peeve of everyone which it took me way too long to get around to, you know the ones: They place an enormous block in front of the webpage you’re trying to use, and the click out icon is itty and bitty and sitting in some far-off corner of the ad where it’s difficult to see. Apparently we’ve all gotten too skilled at navigating our way around regular old online ads, so now desperate corporations have to trick us. Furthermore, why are so many of those ads not catered to your own personal tastes? You would think some of these corporations are starting to get the picture. After all, Google is watching us. (Hi, Google!) That just doesn’t make any sense, with all of the non-intrusive regular ads online that DO cater to our personal tastes.

 

Movie Ticket Prices

Life was so much easier back when movie tickets cost only $5. You went to the theater, bought the ticket, and watched the movie. Now it seems like every theater these days offers some sort of premium viewing experience. So we have theaters with 3D, theaters with surround sound, theaters with dolby, and a whole lot of other indecipherable crap. And you know why it’s there? To get your money! Yes, some of these features are quite nice. But you’re still paying an arm and a leg for all of them, and now you’re expected to pay $10 or $15 for the little additions. Then they added the bulk of matinee times and high traffic times, which tacks on an extra $3 to $5. Now the price of a ticket plus theater food for yourself and another person is the price you pay for just a single ticket. It makes you wonder: Are the theaters aware that Netflix exists? Hell, I do volunteer work in an independent video store. If the ticket price tries to smack me like that, I can wait a few months and rent the DVD for free.

 

LED Car Lights

I just don’t like them.

 

Stores that Move

One of the worst, most inconvenient things there is is needing the services of a VERY particular store. So when you heard down to the local shopping center to take advantage of said store’s services, you head to its location and find nothing but whitewall. The store tries to be all cheerful about it: “MOVING so we can better assist you…” How the fuck is a move supposed to better assist me in doing much of anything? It shuts down the location you need, ensuring that you have to drive to a part of the city that’s 45 minutes away and extremely busy. Yeah, that’s some convenience or better service right there, huh? And there’s no immediate plan to return, and in fact you don’t know when the place will reopen, but you do know that life is going to be a living hell until they do reopen.

 

Television Long-Runners

Honestly, there comes a time when a great television series, no matter how good it once was, just has to gracefully bow out. The Simpsons is pushing 30, and its younger, cooler successors, South Park and Family Guy, are about 20 and 15 respectively. And the problems are always the same: Nothing about them is fresh or new anymore. But since people are zombies who will watch almost anything, they continue giving decent ratings to these old shows, which enables them to clog up the airwaves with more recent junk episodes rather than going away to make room for newer, more daring television shows.

 

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How I Understood Stan Lee: The Greatness of X-men

How I Understood Stan Lee: The Greatness of X-men

The original X-men animated series that aired on Saturday morning confused me. I had heard of the X-men, of course, and knew it was about a group of superheroes. The trouble was that my community had left me with a rather askew idea of what proper heroes were. A hero fought evil, right? And they were always upstanding citizens of their communities who treated everyone the way Fred Rogers would, right? They always knew the difference between right and wrong, were kind and decent to all no matter what, and were eternally outgoing, friendly, and engaging. They had secret identities. Just as sure, every villain could be easily spotted by their black clothes, horns, curly mustaches, and evil cackles. And within a short time frame, any hero would take out a villain and leave them unambiguously defeated and rethinking life decisions in a jail cell.

X-men was my first encounter with the true Stan Lee. It wasn’t my first technical encounter with Stan Lee; that would be the Spider-man Saturday morning animated series. But the trouble with that Spider-man series was that it followed most of the same template that I had come to expect from my stereotypical superheroes: Spider-man was a light warrior who fought villains with distinctly nefarious motives. Yes, the show was presented in a serialized format, and yes, Jameson was there to try to give the show some sort of gray area. But the problem was that Jameson was so over-the-top in his fight to catch Spider-man that he came off as a villain himself. The other characters were also presented in ways which gave them moral clarity. So as far as the Marvel universe went, the point of Spider-man soared right over my head. (This wasn’t the first time black and white morality wrecked my view of comics. I was weaned on the Adam West version of Batman, so I missed the point of that too. It wasn’t until my mother finally explained to me that the original Batman – the one I didn’t know about – was a vigilante that something finally clicked.)

X-men was what gave me a colored view on the world of superheroes and my introduction to the kind of work Stan Lee really did. I remember looking forward to that show and being left in a state of shock by how weird it was. When I was that young, the standout figure with the X-men was Wolverine. So naturally, I pegged him to be an ultimate hero in the Superman mold… So why did he spend half the time acting like such a prick? And the great leader of the X-men was Cyclops. So why did he come off as so lost, indecisive, and stuck in his own head? Why did the show seem to spend as much time with the bad guys as it did with the good guys? Why did the show seem to be presenting the bad guys in a neutral light? And why did so many of the non-powered characters seem to hate the good guys?

This was new, and to a kid looking for action popcorn for a lazy Saturday, it was also extremely radical. There was no room for the flawless superhero in Stan Lee’s world. The good guy/bad guy dynamic was still in play, but it was blurred. The few flawless superheroes that did show up were in the habit of getting screwed, and trying to be one rarely if ever meant a happy ending. It took a bit of time for me to understand that X-men wasn’t there to present kids my age with the animated version of Commando every week. It was difficult for me to take at first since everything about X-men’s good guys was an antithesis to everything my community taught me about what being a good guy meant. X-men’s good guys were often good guys for one reason and one reason alone: They fought against bad guys. And I was frequently taking the show’s word on the good and bad guys as well, because a few of the bad guys at least had understandable reasons for being bad.

It was a bit longer still before I figured out that someone behind these characters was trying to get through to me. In my hometown, there wasn’t very much room for anything or anyone that was out of the ordinary, and the ordinary had a narrow definition. X-men was a sign that, somewhere out there, there were people who understood the sort of isolation and loneliness I felt. It dealt with emotions I understood at the time, and others I wouldn’t come to understand until I grew up a little more. In a way, X-men turned into a sort of right of passage, because I began to see that many of the people I was taught to look up to weren’t necessarily good. The kinds of peers that I was constantly striving to be like so they would think I was cool might not be worth the effort. Of course, I didn’t realize the implications of what I was watching until hindsight years later, but X-men was showing kids why they should fine-tune their bullshit detectors.

There’s an irony in the fact that Marvel has hit the mainstream the way it did, because most of the people who took to Stan Lee’s work way back in the day were outcasts who saw much of themselves in it. With the recent success of the Marvel Universe movies, one could make the case that more people were touched by Lee than anyone would have thought. All of the people introduced to Stan Lee’s work the way I was are grown up now, and yet they have favorite Marvel Universe characters and series, and many can eloquently argue and describe their preferences. All of us have seen something in those movies which touches us on a primal emotional level. And those of us who are different have all felt something in it which made us feel like we were understood somewhere.

Mock us for our geek outlets, but don’t try to insist they don’t matter.

To the DNC

Hey DNC, I just want to send out a quick message here. Its been popping up repeatedly in my news feeds lately that you’re planning on running Hillary Clinton for the presidency again in 2020. I’m going to make this as clear as I possibly can: We hate Hillary Clinton! We never actually liked her! If you think we liked her, you’re obviously watching just as much Fox News as the man Clinton lost to!

Running Clinton back in 2016 made perfect sense. She was a brand name going up against another brand name who was a loudmouth, and considering any other option would have been suicidal. But we have to get one thing straight: No one who voted for Clinton was really VOTING FOR CLINTON. We were all voting against Donald Trump. That was a monumentally terrible election in every possible way, so it’s no wonder voter turnout hit a low. And the fact of the matter was that Donald Trump ran the better campaign. He was going and speaking to all the poor, blue collar types that you folks at the DNC claim to be in the business of looking after.

What has Hillary Clinton done since then? She wrote a book and bitched about everyone who was responsible for her campaign! She’s been attending the Donald Trump School of Uselessness and Cluelessness. Clinton during the Trump presidency hasn’t been any more productive than Trump himself. She’s still out there being the DNC’s little corporate token, and yet you’ve somehow managed to concoct the idea that people still want more of her. And so what next? Are you going to let her play her senses of privilege and entitlement in yet another one of her failed presidential bids? You know, as often as Trump threatened to run for president in years past, he at least pulled himself out of the running until 2016.

We don’t want Hillary Clinton, we don’t need Hillary Clinton, and the younger demographics are all sick of you force-feeding her to us. I promise you that another Clinton campaign is only going to lead to the same wholesale abandonment that the Republicans are facing right now. Worse, you’ll be guaranteeing four more years of Donald Trump, because even out of necessity, absolutely no one is going to settle for Hillary. Did you learn nothing from the 2018 general elections? We’re sick and tired of the same old, same old corporate shills and sellouts. We want to have an option who’s NOT some old white brand name!

All of those new people got elected into Congress because we don’t like the way things are going. Hillary was a representation of continuing a status quo that most of the people who Hillary was trying to appeal to found unacceptable. And the only reason Hillary got as many votes as she did was because her opponent was Donald Trump. That’s not something we’re up for doing again, so we’re not going to do it again. You want the progressive vote? Give us a real candidate who’s in touch with our issues and yank Hillary out of the spotlight once and for all. I speak for all of us when I say we’ve had enough of you shoving the Clintons in our faces. Let them retire to some ranch in Arkansas gracefully and show us someone real. Otherwise, don’t bother trying to ask us for our vote again. Ever.

The Greatest Video Game Controller Buttons Ever

The Greatest Video Game Controller Buttons Ever

Readers of this blog may have caught a post I wrote around a year ago about the worst video game controller buttons ever made. I fully intended to follow that up with a post about the greatest video game controller buttons ever, but my ever-frequent sidetracks came along and kept me from doing so. But since it was a great idea, I knew I would have to get around to writing on the subject eventually, and so here it is: The long-awaited follow-up. Every gamer knows that some gaming console controllers are better than others, but there a lot of individual controller buttons which are better than others. Some are excellent for their quality and ease of use, others for their innovations, and still others are good for the way they commonly function. But which ones are the best of the best of the best? Well, keep right on reading, because I’ve come up with an inarguable, bulletproof list of the best video game controller buttons of all time. I wrote it up on my napkin during break!

Yes, you can blame Kotaku for inspiring the original idea. But Kotaku doesn’t do descriptions or explanations, and I do, so there!

 

10 – A Button

Gamecube Controller

Better known as The Big Green Button, the one thing the Gamecube controller managed to get right was the ginormous A Button. Standing out among a formation of oddly spaced and oddly shaped controller buttons, Nintendo’s signaling of the phrase “PRESS ME!!!” was placed front and center, larger than any of the other buttons on the damned thing, bright green and basically impossible to miss. It might as well have been a giant neon sign. Just sitting there, the A Button knew it was the lord and master of everything it surveyed. Whatever game you happened to be playing on the Gamecube, you knew that whatever function The Big Green Button performed was going to end up being hella important, and so you started plotting your gaming style and strategy accordingly. In a way, that made the Gamecube controller’s A Button an evolutionary step up from one of the legendary video game controller buttons…

 

9 – Button

Atari 2600 Controller

Yes, this is a posterity pick, but you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think it deserves a spot on this list. See, you have to remember that video games are like any other entertainment medium – they evolve, and a lot of things that were once innovations either become better versions of themselves or get junked. Back in the days of gaming yore, no one thought that video games were ever going to need more than one button, so yes, this sucker ended up running its course. But what a course it was! Sitting there alongside a joystick, you always knew where it was and what it did because it was the only action button the 2600 used. It’s the only dash of any real color on the controller. It made Pitfall Harry jump, it made the thing in Space Invaders fire, it… Well, it performed countless different functions in just as many video games. And unlike the finicky joystick standing there next to it, it never particularly cared about the position it was in in relation to the gamer, because it always performed the same way whether it was upside-down or not!

 

8 – Start

Genesis Controller

This is a weird selection, mainly because the Genesis controller’s version of the Start button eventually turned into such a wild card. As most people who know anything about video games are aware, the Genesis controller did something unprecedented: It wiped out the common stock button known as Select and replaced it with a third action button. At first, this looked like overkill. Then it looked like foresight. It eventually started to look backwards after Nintendo placed four action buttons and two shoulder buttons on the Super NES controller. That last one started to cripple the Genesis when Sega decided that it wasn’t going to start including six-button controllers in its packaging. Not everyone bought the six-button, and those who decided not to but loved fighting games were treated to a myriad of weird control substitutions which often utilized the Start button. In one game, it could be the turbo button. In another, it could be block. And in others, it switched between punches and kicks. The caveat was that there was no way to pause a game, but a button as useful and quirky as the Genesis Start button wasn’t something we saw everyday.

 

7 – D-pad Right

Most 16-bit Video Game Controllers

Well, what other direction would you go in?

 

6 – Z Trigger

Nintendo 64 Controller

For all the bad-mouthing we do about it, the Nintendo 64 controller was a stroke of genius in a handful of different ways. The Z Trigger is one of the coolest little innovations I’ve ever seen on a controller. Used in tandem with the analog stick, it brought a bit of ease to first-person shooter players because it was now possible to aim and fire using the same hand. Yes, the usual griping came out of PC gamers, but the Z Trigger introduced a natural ease to shooters which hadn’t been felt since the point-and-press days of Space Invaders. If you weren’t much for first-person shooters, well, you got stuck using the Z Trigger anyway. As I wrote in my piece about the worst controller buttons ever, the Nintendo 64 controller was bogged down by the fact that no one ever programmed anything into the d-pad or L button. The entire left side of the controller was useless. So when a function needed to get placed into a shoulder button, it was the Z Trigger that got the outsourced function on the Nintendo 64 version. What we have here is a novelty trigger with more versatility than a trigger is usually allowed.

 

5 – Analog Stick

Nintendo 64 Controller

And hey, speaking of the Nintendo 64’s analog stick, does anybody remember how much everybody HATED the thing when it first came out? The only reason we had trouble adjusting to it was because we never HAD to adjust to something so radical before. Even the Sony Playstation, which was launched around the same time and led by a prevalence of 3D games, used the basic d-pad. But the analog stick turned out to be an instance where’s Nintendo’s attempt to force gaming to evolve was right on point. Yes, everyone is still so in love with the original d-pad that all the major console makers are forcing them onto their controllers to this very day. But as a form of basic movement, the d-pad is a two-dimensional way of moving for a two-dimensional time in video gaming. When games jumped to 3D, Nintendo saw that gamers would need a form of uninhibited movement in 360 degrees. It saw that we were going to need our games to read more minute movements which would have to be read in more efficient ways than light, gentle taps on the d-pad. Now here we are over 20 years after the fact, and no hardware maker is crazy enough to try to launch a new console without this standard form of movement.

 

4 – L2 and R2

Playstation 2 Controller

Yes, I know everyone remains in love with the pill known as the Super NES controller. And yes, it WAS important – it included more action buttons than any controller ever seen at that point and introduced the first two shoulder buttons. Unfortunately, the thing was small and uncomfortable, and I hated the thing so much that I passed on the Super NES for a Genesis. When Sony introduced the first Playstation, the pistol grip put my deformed arm at ease, so it rescued my ability to game. But it wasn’t until the Dual Shock 2 came out that Sony saw it fit to extend and taper the bottom two shoulder buttons, making them easier to grasp and get our fingers around in way that was more natural than anything we had seen before. Although L2 and R2 were originally done as novelties that only made it easier to fit more functions into a single controller, the Playstation 2 is where they started to take on a new life of their own. The use of shoulder buttons as basic action buttons started with the Dual Shock 2, and a console generation later, Sony started spring-loading the buttons to allow their greater involvement in video games.

 

3 – L Trigger and R Trigger

Dreamcast Controller

Concluding the trigger portion of this list is the breakthrough enhancement that enabled designers to see the potential of triggers on controllers. Yes, the Nintendo 64 was the original, but the Dreamcast spring-loaded the things and placed them properly underneath the controller, transforming the difficult shoulder buttons into practical devices we could use without having to remind ourselves that they were there. Microsoft liked them so much that they nicked them straight for the original Xbox controller, creating the iconic versions of the L and R Triggers gamers have all come to know and love.

 

2 – X and Y Buttons

Super NES Controller

After Sega added a third action button to the Genesis controller, Nintendo realized it would have to go big. So it created a controller for its new flagship console with four action buttons and two shoulder buttons. Not only did that force Sega to create more evolved controllers to add to the Genesis, but how many more controllers had a button C? Even the Dreamcast used the X and Y axis layout.

 

1 – B Button

NES Controller

Okay, you can make a powerful argument that the A button belongs in this spot, and I’ll understand. A made Mario jump and Link swing his sword, after all. B was slightly more innocuous in Nintendo’s primary mascot series because Mario mostly ran with it. But when you make that argument, you’re denying Mario his ability to throw fireballs, Link the ability to shoot his bow and arrow, Samus the ability to shoot anything, and Kirby the ability to suck up his enemies. My qualm with A here is that so much of its function revolved around jumping. It was B that continued what Atari started with the 2600 controller, but it pulled off the trick of doing that while being an additional button which let gamers play with accessories and power-ups. B was the sort of button that shined bright whenever its time came, but which knew that it had to take a backseat at other times. It was B that eventually caused video game controllers to expand the way they did, inviting the other action buttons to show up at the party and bring along unique personalities of their own. B was the button that was at ease playing either the leader or the sidekick. Its position on many of today’s hand-engulfing controllers still enables it to play both of those roles with ease. And all of it started when Nintendo promoted it to its first big boy console.

Giving Out a 1up

Giving Out a 1up

I’ve spent a lifetime playing video games for a thousand different reasons. Boredom, fun, loneliness, escape, procrastination, and imagination-sparking are among them. But recently, I added a couple of new reasons to my list: Charity and encouragement. That made it the first time in my illustrious gaming career that I was playing video games for people other than myself. See, it turns out that there’s a charity out there called Extra Life which gets people to play video games in order to raise money for a children’s hospital. It wasn’t the first time this thing and I crossed paths – I have a friend, Jacob, who’s been gaming to raise money for a few years. Hell, I had even vocalized a desire to partake in such a marathon myself. But it wasn’t until a few days ago that I finally got the chance.

This wasn’t the result of one of my crazy ideas. I know my limits, and even me back in my loneliest and most depressed phases would never have been able to sit down and complete a straight 24-hour video game marathon. Even all the pizza, candy bars, and Mountain Dew on the planet couldn’t keep me up and going for that long. Believe it or not, there are times when the outside world does call. So no, there was no way I was going to attempt to pull this kind of borderline self-abusive stunt on my own.

I don’t want to say Sarah Smith’s campaign office roped me into it, because getting me to play video games doesn’t require any rope. I’m drawn to them like a moth to the flame. And one of the reason’s Sarah’s campaign platform resonated with me so much was because she’s in touch with a lot of the issues that chip off pieces of my being. Sarah is younger than me – I think I have about seven years on her. That means that one of her generation’s quirks is that she grew up never knowing a world where video gaming was strictly a hobby for thugs and delinquents who hung out in smokey, dimly-lit rooms. No one thought it weird that my candidate was a little bit of a gamer, so I’m probably the only one who blinked a little when her campaign sent out a text inviting volunteers to play in the Extra Life marathon. Obviously, I got over it. I said I would be there for a couple of hours to fundraise by doing what I was good at. And hey, no forcing myself on to the phones for this!

When the big day came, my schedule was crammed. I had to go out, finish a piece I was writing for Every Team Ever (shameless self-plug), go to the library, get to Sarah’s office to play for Extra Life, go back up to the University District to work my volunteer job at Scarecrow, then get to Capitol Hill for an introverts’ meetup for drinks. And the fact that I was going to be tackling all this without my car – I’m way too smart to attempt driving through Seattle – left me little room for error. I managed to get to the campaign office right for an early afternoon break, but I was already pretty wiped out by the time I stumbled through the door. Fortunately, there wasn’t any trouble getting me squeezed in for a session or two. Going roundabout to see that the new faces there got an idea of who I was, I made conversation with a pair of fellow upstate New York natives. One fellow, Cliff, happened to be from Buffalo, which meant I was subjected to a comment about how sketchy South Buffalo is. They gave me the rundown, told me what’s been happening, and welcomed me to the impending Street Fighter II tournament.

I’m a classic overanalyzer. Put anything in front of my face, and I guarantee I WILL find a way to overthink and overanalyze it, then second- and third-guess my analysis. (I think of this as the “this is why I like to be drunk when I write” node.) I tend to play my fighting games in a chess-like fashion because I like trying to learn characters and decipher their strengths and weaknesses. And like every other gamer on the planet, Street Fighter II stands among my all-time favorites. But I never did manage to become – ahem – GOOD at Street Fighter II. I developed a passable fighting ability with most of the characters, but never exactly mastered any of them. And more to the point, everyone in the room was a self-admitted button-masher. Button-mashing is a crude way to play a fighting game – especially one as eloquent as a Street Fighter game – but it WORKS. When my rounds of Street Fighter II were over, I had reached a brand new social class: Someone running an active political campaign for the United States Congress had totally thrashed me in a video game. Had I been allowed my regular master class of fighting game characters (Galford from Samurai Shodown, Cinder from Killer Instinct, and especially Jacky Bryant from Virtua Fighter), the results would have been different.

Throughout the 24-hour duration of the Extra Life marathon, the campaign was running a livestream. That meant there was going to be more substantial talk than the usual “Oh shit!” during this gaming binge. I don’t have problems with being filmed or photographed; what bugs me are the times when I have to do them without preparation. And a livestream meant that my weird non-sequiters were going to be caught. As we put Street Fighter II away and opened up a game of Mario Kart 8, I let my three companions perform most of the chatter. It seemed to come more naturally to them than it did me. But I did get to say my pieces, and I made sure they had a little bit of heft. We made little observations here and there – every character in Street Fighter II is a racial caricature, and good luck unseeing that – and talked about the issues. What drew us into politics? Who were our heroes? The talks covered such thoughts as our biggest concerns as progressives, what the current financial policies in the country were keeping us from doing, and why we thought getting real working people into Congress was important.

In between subjects, we invited everyone who watched us to write in with questions. Which they frequently did. Some wondered about how we dealt with the stress that goes with activism. Others wondered what we thought was important, and still others wondered about the climate that disabled people face every day. I remained the quietest presence there, mostly because I was busy trying to master all the Rainbow Road courses, but I did manage to get my words in edgewise. While gaming is stereotyped as a loner hobby, Extra Life showed just how social it can be. Mario Kart 8 was a four-player game, and as we talked, we grew comfortable with each other. The next thing I knew, I had been gaming for nearly four hours and had to make a mad dash to the University District.

It was just my luck that, upon getting up to Scarecrow, I was told I could skip my shift because the week was slow. Had I known that would happen, I probably would have played out the rest of the Extra Life marathon.

 

Renouncement

Renouncement

Readers of this blog may have caught a post I wrote back in May or June of this last year. In it, I explored the idea of what it meant to be invested in the fortunes of a sports team and said that I couldn’t bring myself to follow my childhood team anymore. I argued that dropping or even switching teams is okay if they’re robbing you of your hard-earned money and non-returnable free time. Sports are an escape, after all – they shouldn’t be anyone’s be-all-and-end-all. Once I realized that my childhood team wasn’t returning any of the emotion I was investing in them and that following them was far too much of a pain than I should be going through, I had to give them the axe. Especially since they represent a place with which I had a rocky relationship at the best of times and an outright poisonous relationship at the worst.

My mother died in 2016 and my father moved to California a year later in order to move on. When those happened, they severed almost all of my remaining emotional connections to The Nickel City. With my family out of Buffalo and my childhood hockey team not mattering to me anymore, I started coming to a rather stark thought: What was it, exactly, that I was so hell-bent on glamorizing about my birth town? What kinds of roots did I REALLY have there, aside from it being the place that I was born and raised? How strong are the values that the place tried to instill in me? They say you can leave the city, but the city never leaves you. In Buffalo, they say Buffalo is a state of mind. If there’s any truth to that, then Buffalo is a state of mind I’ve had to reject in order to function right. We’re talking about a city I moved away from two different times. The first time left me a little bit nostalgic for the few values that Buffalo got right, especially the cost of living there. After my poverty got out of control in Chicago, I returned to Buffalo in the hopes that I might be able to use the lessons I had learned and the ways I had grown to stake out a life of my own in my native city. The ensuing four years drained me of that delusion, and I bolted again. I went faster, I went further, and even upon my rough and unsure first few months in Seattle, I kept myself free of almost all the nostalgia.

We tend to romanticize the idea of holding on to our roots, but I’m not sure anyone sits down and thinks about what it means to do that. For me, very little remains of any sort of relationship I had with Buffalo at all. It recently occurred to me that the idea of trying to hold on to my roots from The Nickel City means trying to hold a firm emotional connection with a place that did everything in its power to remind me that I was subhuman and deny me the right to eke out even a basic existence. A typical Buffalo life is set in a specific pattern of being born, going to school, leaving school, taking up a job in whatever call center (the call center is the new factory) will have you, getting married, and having kids who will do the same. Any deviation from or questioning of that pattern is a mortal sin. And there was me, the curious kid, looking to know why society worked the way it did or why we had specific rules and traditions that popped out of nowhere some time immemorial ago. I was always after more from the surrounding world – things which Buffalo was frequently both unable and unwilling to provide. I wanted knowledge; truths and adventures to talk about with people who could share their own back to me.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Buffalo because there are a few worthwhile values I learned there that have served me well. I know what a good, proper work ethic should be and how to be a good neighbor. I know good pizza and good chicken wings, and I have continued to stay in touch with a few old friends who still live in Buffalo. But there are a lot of other, less salient values the city inflicted onto me: The community owns the rights over every single aspect of my life. Drinking away a mental problem is okay – in fact, it’s the only real method of dealing with it. Tradition is an irrefutable god. Anyone who falls outside our prescribed life patterns is abnormal and hostile and must be excluded from everything. Sit down and shut the fuck up and never question anything you get taught. The world outside the city here is inconsequential. Needless to say, I took on an outcast status in Buffalo. Yeah, I shared a handful of qualities with the people there, but I liked reading and being a geek as much as I enjoyed a good hockey or football game. What happened was that I became something of a member of the city’s hidden population. People there knew me, but they didn’t know me very well, and they sure as hell didn’t understand me. Most of them didn’t have the inclination to try; they superimposed upon presumptions that I was just another one of them.

My move to Chicago was like an ongoing acid trip. Everything was shiny and new, and my brain was in a constant state of sensory overload. Whatever I wanted, Chicago had a way to offer it to me. What’s more was the fact that no one criticized me for my interests or told me I was unacceptable because of a couple of interests which didn’t jibe with the ethos of the city. While I was marked by severe poverty for my time in The Windy City, I also saw my own potential as a human start to awaken. I started making friends and was accepted and respected as a real member of a community. It was in Chicago that I was able to start trying things that would make a small impact on the world around me. My crowning achievement was creating and watching over an urban garden, but I was a part of fundraisers and protests too. I was, in fact, one of the people acting behind the scenes of the October 2006 protest day. More to the point was the fact that I was among people who questioned everything as loudly and boldly as I had been trying to do for my entire life.

For the first time in my life, I wasn’t some freak. I was just a regular person around town, and I reveled in my newfound intellectual and individual freedom. No one in my neighborhood judged me for any offbeat interests I had. I was allowed to do what I pleased and follow whatever made me curious or happy, and if I had a question about the way things were done, it was taken seriously rather than brushed aside. To say the realization that I would have to move back to Buffalo was devastating would be an understatement. On my list of my life’s biggest heartbreakers, my move back to Buffalo is in a respectable second, under the day my mother died. I tried to put an optimistic spin on it, but I had mentioned to a friend of mine that I was counting on a frictional relationship with my folks and not being able to go anywhere or do anything. Which happened.

Buffalo is the city of some of my biggest failures and pains. It’s a symbol of the many ways I’ve been rejected as a full human being. I learned to hate myself and hide my deformity as if it were some sort of terrible secret shame. So years later I came to the realization that I’ve never been much of a Buffalo man at all. When that happened, I slowly started to tear myself away from the destructive civic habits of the place I was born and raised, and then start freeing myself of the wannabe-thug exterior and toxic form of masculinity that kept holding me back after I had left the city for the first time. After all, why would I want to retain an emotional connection with a place that treated me in such a way? It didn’t make any sense. It didn’t make sense at any time I’ve ever lived outside of Buffalo, and it doesn’t make any sense in this day and age, when most of my emotional ties there are gone and I’m not making any plans to even visit, let alone to move back.

Yes, I’ve spent most of my life in Buffalo. But Buffalo is the asshole jock from all those movies in the 80’s having grown up and turned into a loser without realizing it. So when it comes to identifying the city that really created me, I’m in and of Chicago.

That Goddamned List

That Goddamned List

The worst, weirdest, stupidest phone call I ever made was in 2006, when I was a rising star in the world of arts marketing. I called a subscriber to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to sell a season ticket package. A little kid answered the phone, and I asked him to put his father on. Which the kid, of course, dutifully did. As I began my routine, the father interrupted me: “I have NOT had sex with my wife for MONTHS, and I FINALLY get her in bed, and you JUST FUCKED IT ALL UP FOR ME!!!…” Oh, he started screaming at me at the top of his lungs after that, but I missed everything he said because I was already in the act of placing the phone back onto the base. It was the only time I ever hung up on one of my customers. What I REALLY wanted to do was interrupt him in turn with a short speech about how ugly his wife was – after all, what was the kid doing running around at THAT time if he was interested in his wife? But my supervisor could have been listening, so I ignored the impulse.

I left the Symphony a short time after that to make a go with the Illinois PIRGs. They were a resoundingly shitty organization to work for, had lied outright about their work in order to recruit me, and my once-promising media career was over. To tell the truth, I was a little relieved; working my way up the corporate ladder for the company contracting me would have meant spending more time on the phone. I could rest easy knowing my life wasn’t dependant on calling people and asking for their credit card numbers anymore.

Here I am now, years later, going back into political activism after a long period of inactivity. And just my luck! What does my line of campaign work involve now? Calling people! No one likes bugging people in their private homes, and no one likes being bugged in their private homes, either. Not many people realize this about telemarketers, but they don’t like talking to you. If you’ve answered the phone, they already want you dead. But old experience gets volunteer employers to take note, so in the early days of my new politically active era, I was on the fucking phone yet again. Three phone banking sessions and I started telling people in the campaign that I was absolutely, positively done making calls. I don’t want my candidate to lose votes because my tongue got too loose.

While outright abuse has been thankfully minimal, there’s one little truth about phone banking that needs to be addressed: This “list.” Let’s get a few things clear about the list. The first thing you need to know about the list is that you heard about it through the grapevine, and we all know how things heard through grapevines work. That’s a fancy way of saying ideas about it may not be accurate, and the list is one of those things in which that’s true. The list you want to be taken off of is no more real than the grapevine you heard about it from. What that means is that from the telemarketer’s point of view, there’s nothing to pull your name from, and so you’re just some random name that popped off a screen somewhere. Names come up and the people making those annoying phone calls don’t have a choice. People in call centers have no control whatsoever over who they call. If a name is in there, it’s in there, and no amount of screaming, bitching, or death threats is going to change that. And frankly, if you’re too nasty or threatening, you deserve the harassment.

While I’m on the subject, I need to cover the no-call list that everyone says they’re on as well since I’ve been verbally abused over it. I don’t know what this no-call list is or who’s on it. I don’t know where to go to sign my name to it. What I DO know is that between all the phone work I’ve been forced to do, I’ve never actually seen a no-call list. I think that, unlike the caller list, the no-call list might actually exist, though. When I was doing work for WNED and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it got talked about an awful lot, even by my supervisors. And the supervisors talked about it in legal technicalities. So even if the no-call list exists – which, again, is something I can reasonably doubt – there are a few factors in play which the people who kick and scream about it don’t take into account. First of all, the no-call list doesn’t apply to everywhere that tries to grab money through phone sales and phone donations. Arts and government organizations are exempt from it. And if a big corporation has outsourced its phone sales jobs to places overseas, the no-call list doesn’t apply to them, either. Frankly, the types of callers the no-call list bans are in a very, Very, VERY specific line of making phone sales, and the good folks behind it apparently aren’t into random inspections. If a place needs to disturb you at home, they can get around your precious no-call list by changing their callers’ official job titles. Why wouldn’t they? Uncle Sam isn’t breathing down their necks.

So this is what it comes down to: You’re assaulting someone who is probably poised to blow their top over a list they don’t know anything about. No, you don’t want to be bugged about some damn ideology at home, but from the employee’s point of view, you’re an asshole who can’t be polite for the two seconds it takes to say, “No.” And I should take the time to point out that there are some telemarketing services that provide employees with the customers’ information.

Since my political work is strictly on a volunteer level, though, I’m not worried about getting threats from people I call. After all, I told them I wasn’t going to bug people at home about politics anymore and that they’ll have to find something new for me to do. There’s one more thing I should remind people about volunteer work, though: If a volunteer calls, there’s nothing that can stop them from blowing up.