Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Dude, they're more than just games!

By Felix Carroll

Ever since a bunch of prudes in California tried to prohibit the sale of violent video games to minors, they come to me, the creators of these sublime electronic art forms that make educational use of chainsaws and dismemberment. Mischaracterized, unjustly treated, hunted down — they seek wisdom and a reprieve from the mad world of the Mommy State.

Have I even introduced myself? Maybe you’ve heard of me. A child of the 80s, during what’s called the “Golden Age” of video games, I’ve never given up the ghost, never sold out (unlike all of my so-called childhood “friends” who now have so-called “jobs” and raise so-called “families” and have so-called “concerns” that many video games have gone “way too far” and that their children's classmates believe that fictional urination upon fictional victims is just another way of saying “Rest in peace, dear friend.”) ...

Anyway, unless you’ve lived under a rock for the past 30-plus years, you’ll recognize me as the man who brought the video game “Pong” to its next inevitable incarnation — “Beer Pong” (a variant of “Pong” involving a ping-pong ball, a co-ed dorm, and the consumption of lots of beer) and then later “Heroin Pong” (a variant of “Beer Pong” involving a ping pong ball that can no longer be located, a certain powerful opiate, and a condemned apartment building populated with trim people whose friends have all abandoned them).

Here in my bunker behind an abandoned bowling alley where I hold vigil with a lazar gun trained on the heavens (because the space invaders will be here soon, yes they will) the creators of such super-awesome modern games as “Manhunt” and “Postal 2” visit me seeking counsel. I guess you could say they are seekers, and in me they find their guru.

And yes, I wear a saffron-robe. And yes I give them lengthy pep talks the first Friday of the month and every other waxing gibbous. And except for potty breaks, I remain in the lotus position (and I’m not talking about the IBM software either, man!). And every person in their right mind credits my karmic/cosmic/phlegmatic/aromatic energy waves for influencing the Supreme Court in June to strike down California prudes, ruling it unconstitutional to regulate the sale or rental of violent video games to minors.

I sometimes feel like a voice crying in the wilderness, but we who were raised on “Space Invaders,” “Pac-Man,” “Donkey Kong,” and “Frogger" have an obligation to support this new generation of video game creators who have blessed our world with photorealistic, interactive, existential struggles involving stalking, gory bludgeoning, impalement, and death.

Jeez, everyone (except maybe psychologists, sociologists, the American Academy of Pediatrics, cops, clerics and educators) knows full well there’s no cause-effect relationship between a child's prolonged exposure to sadistic video games and what those do-gooders call “aggressive behavior, anxiety, bullying and desensitization.”

Still, modern gamers cannot rest easy. Those Propriety Police are still out to get us, which explains why my docket remains full. These modern Michelangelos come to me just as seekers of a different age sought out Shirdi Sai Baba, or Mother Meera, or Jack LaLanne.

Why just two weeks ago, riding in the back of a 300-foot stretch limo, the creators of "Postal 2" made a pilgrimage to me. Together, we celebrated the Supreme Court ruling as a victory for free speech. Then they flattered me with a few rounds of “Postal 2” in which we killed cats, slammed a woman in the face with a shovel, decapitating her, and tallied the "Number of People Murdered," "People Roasted" and "Heads Exploded by Shotgun.”

“Gentlemen,” I said as they prepared to depart, “bravo! What you’ve created here is nothing less than a brilliant teaching device for conflict resolution and hand-eye coordination.”

When the creators of "Mortal Kombat 9" sat by my feet and showed me their wares, I said, “Gentleman, I don’t care what the namby-pampies
say: Any game in which we are invited to eat off an opponent's head, pull out their stomach and slice them in half with a buzzsaw is a character-building experience in my book!"

Similarly, my mouth was agape at the selfless act of community service evinced by the geniuses of "Grand Theft Auto," which aids in building friendships, a respect for deadly weaponry and the appreciation of how fleeting life can be.

Gosh, if we only had those games around when I was 13. But I've certainly built a life for myself just the same. Yep, I've got my bunker and zero regrets. Long ago I decided against being co-opted by The Man. I gave up the plumbing trade, having learned from “Donkey Kong” that it’s only a matter of time before I’d be smooshed by a series of rolling barrels heaved by an angry ape. (And you know what?
It’s high time damsels take ownership of their own distress!)

Besides, 400,000 games of “Pac-Man” during my ductile years taught me that life is a maze and that the more coinage you waga, waga, waga upon, the more you’re haunted by ghosts until you’re — Bing-boowoo-el — dead!

(Don’t you get it, people? Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde: That’s just a clever play upon Business Partner Innovation Centers, owned and operated by IBM Premier Business Partners. And everyone knows that IBM is just a one-letter shift from HAL, the evil-red-camera-eyed, eavesdropping supercomputer in “2001: A Space Odyssey.")

Look, I’m not saying I’m perfect. Having never made it through the first level of “Frogger,” I assumed it was only speeding automobiles responsible for the annihilation of our cute, little, hopping friends.

Gamers more skilled than me have since informed me that crocodiles, snakes and otters also bear some responsibility. (I really wish I’d known that before my anti-modern screeds influenced a whole generation of eco-terrorists in the Pacific Northwest.)

Ah, who cares! For this old wise man, when it comes to video games, Yin Yang my ass!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mother's Day: Mom’s the word

The Carroll children get a puppy on Christmas 1974
By Felix Carroll

An archetypal mother raising children in the 1970s and 1980s, she stayed at home to raise four children. She put dinner on the table. She tied our shoes, bandaged our wounds and cleaned our faces with spit before school. She eventually divorced when the children were grown. She watched three of her four children develop serious medical problems. A grandchild died when he was 2-years-old.

She loves to love. She loves to laugh. She’s my mother, and she has answers:

Do you think it’s easier or harder to be a mother now than when you were raising our family?
Hard to say. A lot of extenuating circumstances. I stayed home. There were people like my sister who worked and who said I was lucky I could stay home and “watch TV all day.” I could’ve killed her. I wanted it all to be good, and it was hard work. Now, the moms have to go to work. That to me, that’s really hard. If you’re trying to do both, with your heart and soul — which is what you need to do — that’s really exhausting, and the fathers have to really share the burden now, otherwise it’s a mess.

Many of today’s parents seem to struggle between overparenting and the “Spartan” approach — allowing their children a long leash to work a lot of things out. What do you make of it?
Yeah, the truth is many kids have only a shred of the freedom we enjoyed growing up and you all enjoyed growing up. I think that you had a great opportunity to explore on your own and be left alone and make mistakes and maybe get into a little trouble. And when I was a kid, my God, we went miles from home. No one knew where we were. But today we’re so aware there are bad people. There always have been, but now we’re so aware because it comes flashing at you in the news. A lot of us got lucky that our kids didn’t come in contact with bad people. It’s a difficult line to draw, and I’m glad I don’t have to.

What were your most worrisome times?
Your father’s health. When Jimmy had his asthma problems. A lot of worrying going on there. Times when one of you was having a hard time in elementary school and being ostracized. I went down and spied on the situation during recess and watched it happen. You can’t save your kids from those things. You can only love them. And when we lost the house. And when I have to watch my children develop serious health problems. And one of the most difficult moments was the day you asked me “Can we stop holding hands?”

How old was I?
Oh, sixteen.

No, really.
Maybe third grade. We were crossing Mantua Avenue afterschool and approaching the park. We were in the middle of the street, and you asked me, “Mom, can we stop holding hands now?” It was your rite of passage. You had a right to ask me. You had your friends to think about. We didn’t hold hands again.

What were the happiest times?
I’m not going to go to people being born because giving birth is very painful. It was a trip we took. The Liberty Bell? No, not that one, but that was good. Probably watching all of you out in the yard raking the leaves till the pile got so high, and you got a stepladder and you all jumped in the pile. Just looking out the window and watching all of you do that. And Fourth of July. We made a humongous float. Huge. That year, you were on a tricycle all decorated. Another time, when we went up to Niagara Falls and went on the Maid of the Mist. You were all so happy. You got all wet. And Christmases, when you all still believed in Santa Claus, when you all would come down the staircase.

What’s most important life skill a parent can teach their children?
They should all learn how to cook. Every boy and every girl.

What did your parents get right? What did they get wrong?
They stuck together. We always had dinner together, which is very important. And when my father had a car, we would go on trips. He worked at the telephone company. He drove the truck home. What did they get wrong? Well, not that she could have helped it, but my mother wasn’t always there. She was a nurse. Whenever people we knew would go to the hospital they would come home and tell us what a great nurse our mother was. Being a mother was really a tough job for her. She just couldn’t figure it out.  Couldn’t figure it out. My father was a beer drinker. On Fridays, he’d hang out at Rick’s Bar, and we had to go get him, and that wasn’t good. But they stayed together.

What are parents getting wrong today?
Speaking generally, many of them let their kids talk to them in a way they shouldn’t be allowed to. I remember my father would never allow us to say the word “What?” If he or my mother called for us and we answered “What?” Oh boy.

What are parents getting right?
Most parents are really honed in on education for their kids. I think more parents really love their kids and show it. I know there are a lot of kids that suffer terribly in this world, but I see a lot of love, and that’s how the children are going to survive.

If you could go back and change anything, what would it be?
I always think, “Did I give my children enough hugs?” It gnaws at me. It plagues me.

The worst family vacation?
When we went to Florida. Yep, the “big trip to Disney World.” Ay, ay, ay. [The rest of her answer has been redacted. It’s a sensitive matter. But look out for my forthcoming book titled, When Going to Disney World, Bring Enough Money and  How Fathers Shouldn’t Slap Ice Cream Cones from Their Children’s Hands No Matter What]

What’s one of the most loving things someone has done for you?
Felix McCabe, my father — the way he showed his love to me. It stays with me the rest of my life. He was the kind of father who told us stories. Every Friday he’d bring pretzels home for us. He absolutely lived for us. He didn’t have much to offer. We didn’t have money. He always worked hard at the telephone company. When he retired he made that garden and he’d give us all this food. He grew a lot of stuff, and you could have anything you wanted from that garden. It made him happy. And he adored my children.

What's the one place you'd like to visit before you die?
Ireland. I want to go to the farm where my mother grew up and meet Kieran and his family and see the farm and see some of the beauty of Ireland and go into a pub and have a pint.

Remember every Mother's Day and Father's Day when we used to ask you why isn't there a Son's Day and Daughter's Day? I just want to tell you now that you were right: Every day is Son's and Daughter's Day, and we need more Mother's Days, maybe every Saturday.
I won't argue with you.

What are you most grateful for?
My four children. I have to say that because that’s number one. They always love me and I love them. That’s easy for us, we just love each other. Grandchildren. All these grandchildren. Each and everyone of them are so special and so good; they’re good kids.

What do want for Mother’s Day.
Well I got a new radio because mine broke, so I bought one at Target. Thirty bucks. The last of its kind. I need nothing. I need a new car.

It’s best if you talk to Jim and Chris about that, but in the meantime: Happy Mother's Day!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Let's go meet the neighbors!

This first appeared in the Albany Times-Union.

By Felix Carroll
Unlike the mass-produced batches of bombastic, blue-blotched cannonballs discharged each morning from the recoiling commercial ovens of your favorite supermarket, my wife's blueberry muffins impose themselves upon no one's personal space.

Sized to the dimensions of no more than four mouthfuls, their deliberate lack of excessive fervency pretty much mirrors the kind of people we are.

Therefore, to present a plateful of them to neighbors who just moved in two doors down in that charming little white house is to say in the silence of our hearts, "Welcome, friend! We baked these for you. They are moist and delicious for sure, but mostly they represent our willingness to care about you if you choose to be cared about by us. These muffins tell a little bit about ourselves. Mostly, we know about boundaries, and if we didn't, we would be presenting you with very large, store-bought muffins whose self possession has an edge of aggression.

"Dear neighbors, if you're finding this unannounced visit of neighborliness to be awkward or even annoying, please note we put the muffins on a paper plate rather than one you would have to wash and return. This is our way of saying that if you wish to never interact with us ever again other than a perfunctory wave you can simply throw the paper plate away, and we can all pretend this never happened."

Our new neighbors moved in June 5. We got a glimpse of them that Saturday, a young couple with a skip to their step. That's when the idea came to us to welcome them to the neighborhood the way people used to welcome people to neighborhoods. That is to say, knock on the door and present ourselves as smiling, potentially awesome neighbors bearing a gift.

Later that day, our house smelled like blueberry muffins. My wife made extra. We stuffed our faces. She put six on a paper plate and arranged them in a way that looked purposefully unarranged.

"Do you have to give them six?" I said, still chewing. "Why not four?"

"Because then the plate would look too empty."

Our 10-year-old boy piped in: "Then put the four on a smaller plate."

"Yeah," I said. "Four muffins on a smaller plate will still look like a plate full of muffins."

We didn't have a smaller paper plate. I put on a clean shirt. She poked a comb at her hair. We spit-shined our boy. Then we headed out the door, muffins in hand, out to the street when we noticed the neighbors' cars were gone.
"They were just there, like, 12 minutes ago," I said.

We went back into the house and appointed our boy the official scout. Every 20 minutes or so he would come back inside and shout, "Nope, not there."

The next morning, again they were there, then they were gone. Later that day, our mouths encroached upon their muffins, and thereby Operation Welcome to the Neighborhood was suspended.

Then, the following day, my wife made haste and baked another batch. Muffins in hand, our boy spit-shined, we again made our way out onto the street and discovered their cars were gone.

"They were just there 10 minutes ago," I said.

Over the course of the next two days, the same sort of there-then-not-there thing happened. We polished off their muffins and decided to regroup the next day. But then at 2:20 a.m. my pager went off. I'm a firefighter. We got a report of a carbon monoxide alarm in the home of our new neighbors. We pulled up in the fire engines seven minutes later. All was well. We shut off their boiler. We vented the house. And I introduced myself.

So that was that. I now give perfunctory waves to them when I pass by, and I haven't eaten a decent muffin in three weeks.