Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Ambivalent Nerd

Though the infrequency of my blogging might suggest otherwise, I lead a quite full life full of interesting events that would, in theory, make great anecdotal posts. Unfortunately, most of these stories (such as the one from last weekend where I ended up with an ice pack on my groin – don't ask) are not exactly fit for the public at large, because they reveal aspects of my personal life I would prefer to keep hidden from those who still somehow have a good opinion of me or are just flat out too embarrassing.

Accordingly, there are a number of things that I do and enjoy every day that I never talk about my blog. It's time to come clean and confess everything. I'm sorry if this disappoints anybody, and I'll understand if, after hearing my big secret, you'll never want to talk to me again.

I am a nerd. A comic-book loving, D&D playing, fantasy-books reading nerd. Yes, I play Dungeons and Dragons. I am more recently known to my fellow D&Ders as Murphy McWatt, a level 7 human fighter, and to others as Davin Lightbringer, a level 11 paladin, and to some with a fine sense of nostalgia as Froderick von Brinsbane, a bard whose level didn't matter because he was only around for comic relief (and take my word for it, he was HILARIOUS). Yes, I own the D&D manuals and a set of dice. I confessed this once to a friend and he reacted as if I had just told him I was secretly a Muslim extremist. Seriously, it was like coming out of the closet or something. Because when you tell people you like stuff like that, the first thing they associate you with is those people who walk around campus wearing cloaks and chainmail and who are always practicing their sword fighting in the grassy areas. Thats why I keep my nerdy materials hidden carefully away in case anybody should get the wrong idea.

And thats what keeps me from being a completely inexcusable nerd, I think. I'm ambivalent about my nerdiness; I have anxieties about it. I'm aware of the silliness of it. For example, as a student of art and literature, I find it inexcusable the amount of time I've spent reading Lord of the Rings-rip-offs like “The Wheel of Time” series instead of getting to those great works I've yet to read like “War and Peace” and “Ulysses.” But at least I don't make those fantasy books the center of my life like SOME people I know of. Those people make me nervous.

For example, let me relate the story of when I went to the back room of one of those game stores in the mall (you know, the area where the nerds hang out all day and play Magic: the Gathering and argue about the rules) in order to buy my first set of dice. I was dressed up in my best metrosexual outfit, to try and distinguish myself from the hygienically challenged guys milling about back there. I was playing it super cool, really confident as if buying twenty-sided dice was the fashion for guys my age now days. Problem was, I wasn't very happy with the selection they had. I mean, all the dice were in ugly colors or just looked crappy like they were going to fall apart. I demand quality from everything in my life, even my role-playing dice. So I was taking my time browsing through my options when the guy behind the counter tries to strike up a conversation with me.

“Getting some dice?”

I don't look at him. “Yeah.”

“Looking for anything in particular?”

“Not really. Just browsing to make sure I find something I'm happy with.”

“Yeah,” he said, “I'm just like you. I like to find just the right set of dice to fit my character. It's important, I think.”

I freaked out. I wanted to run away shouting, I'm NOTHING like you! But I swallowed my pride and bought a set of dice which, to this day I think is horribly sub par. Another time, months and months later, I ended up back there and found myself arguing about D&D rules with this girl until I realized where I was and what I was doing and had a moment of internal horror. The strength of my reaction on these two occasions surprised me. Why was I so desperate not to be associated with these guys? I mean, personal hygiene and social skills aside, they really aren't all that different than me. We like a lot of the same things, if to a different extent. I mean, they are just people. What's the problem?

All this is really sort of a set-up to talk about the thing that has dominated my life for the past month. It's a insidiously addictive online game called World of Warcraft. Many of my friends have blogged about that game recently, most notably Luke and Ben, but I just had to add in my two cents. Never before have I encountered something that I simultaneously love and hate with such passion. The game is beautifully designed (if somewhat in a way calculated to make you spend hours and hours at a time on it), has gorgeous graphics and, when played with a group of your guy friends (me, Ben, Luke, Scott, and Rich took on a group of religious zealots earlier this week) forcing you to work together as a team in order to overcome obstacles, it can be more fun than any computer game has any right to be.

Why do I hate it then? World of Warcraft has a culture and a society all of its own, which is populated solely by thousands and thousands of those very same geeks who hang around in the back section of gaming stores, whose average age (both literally and mentally) is 12 and who are all, with few exceptions, male. And we're talking violence-loving, tragically insecure, excessively competitive, extremely homophobic male. And what kind of society is created from the combination of such individuals? Ever read “Lord of the Flies?” Me neither (I was reading “The Wheel of Time,” remember). But I have a suspicion its something like that. Its a culture based entirely on juvenile oneupmanship, on calling people names and proving you are the best because your little digital person has better digital armor than somebody elses. Its level-based hierarchy is just like in those families of all boys where the oldest picks on the next oldest and he turns and picks on the next oldest and so on and so forth until everybody is picking on everybody to try and make themselves feel better about having been picked on.

And, surprisingly enough, thats not something I want to be a part of. The game kind of requires you to interact with other players a lot, and thats not pleasant when 90% of them are incapable of normal communication. That's another pet peeve: WoW players have devised a fascinating dialect all of their own, full of shorthands and acronyms and slang belonging solely to the world of the game. Some are standard Internet lingo that can be useful when used in small doses (i.e., BRB for “be right back” or OMW for “on my way” or even LOL for “laugh out loud” as long as its not used too much). Some are simply lazy and have the effect of making anything you say look stupid (i.e., “u” and “ur” instead of “you” and “your,” childish slang like “pwned!” and ANY word with numbers replacing letters “n00b”).

So why don't I just quit? Sounds simple enough, doesn't it? I don't like the culture and the community in the game, which is a huge part of the game, so why don't I just stop? I'll tell you why: I CAN'T – I LOVE IT SO MUCH. The agony of defeat! The thrill of victory! The nice reward after a long hard quest! The gorgeous graphics! And most of all, the fun of inhabiting this bittersweet, fascinating world with some of the best buddies a guy could ask for. When it comes right down to it, the game is bigger than the losers who play it. It's worth putting up with them for.

I mean, I'm sure they are good people who, outside of the game, might actually not be caustic and irritating. But the sooner they realize that this is just a game and stop making fun of my equipment the better off we will all be!

So its a love/hate relationship. I mean, I love it, but I hate that I love it, and I love that I hate it. I love that I hate it even though I love it, or maybe I hate that I can't decide whether to love it or hate it. You get the idea.

Now, if you'll excuse me, there's this sweet sword I, Andelm the level 35 Night Elf Warror, have just got to get my hands on.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The X-Men: Deconstructing the Other

I am, as has been brought to my attention on several occasions, something of a “movie snob.” This means I regularly turn up my nose at mainstream Hollywood flicks in favor of more obscure, antiquated, or pretentious artistic films like “The Lion in Winter,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Henry V,” etc. etc. However, I have tried to reassure my critics on this point that, despite the prevailing opinion to the contrary, I do on occasion enjoy a good big-budget movie along with the rest of the masses. This weekend, in fact, I went to the movie theater in the mall (the temple wherein America worships high-priced and flashy banality) to watch “X-Men 3: The Last Stand,” a major summer motion picture, albeit the heyday of its popularity was SO three weeks ago. And I rather enjoyed it, just as I enjoyed its two predecessors.

If you can lower your artistic expectations and have a healthy ability to suspend your disbelief about the science of the whole thing, the story of the X-Men is really great. Its an exploration of how we deal with other people who are different from us, which, basically, is what the whole of human history is about. In previous films in the series, I left thinking about minorities and our history of treating them poorly, from marginalization to outright genocide. In addition to that, this most recent film made think about xenophobia, and how we construct notions of the Other. I've ranted on my blog before about the danger that comes from an ideology that divides humanity into categories of “us” and “them,” and the X-Men movie really plays with this idea.

In the first place, we see, as we have in the previous installments, the xenophobia of the humans against the mutants. This minority is demonized and dehumanized until they are viewed as things, as monsters, and not people. The politician in the first movie who was pushing for the Mutant Registration Act (I can't remember his name) was the spokesman for this kind of rhetoric. He says, “Are you in favor of registering firearms? Well, some of these so-called “children” have more destructive capability than any hand gun.” The result is the creation, a construct, in the minds of the mainstream of an inhuman “Other.” Once this construct takes hold, all kinds of intolerant and destructive behavior becomes easy to rationalize. After all, its not like they are people, like us. While fictional, this story is reminiscent of the times in history where this demonization of a group of people as the Other has led to horrific ends. The treatment of the Jews under the Nazi regime is a notorious and tragic example.

But this movie, specifically, also showed how easy it is for members of a persecuted and demonized minority to respond by dehumanizing their oppressors. Instead of working to undermine and destroy the pernicious human/mutant dichotomy, they seek merely to reverse it. Magneto and his ilk demonize humans (calling them filth, or unclean, or less advanced) until they become the Other in much the same way mutants are for some humans. By doing so, they serve only to reinforce the negative stereotypes that have been placed upon them, causing the humans to act with even more hysteria and intolerance. Magneto cannot even continue association with one of his former mutant henchmen after they accidentally receive the mutant “cure,” saying that now they have become “one of them.” The operative word here being them. Those people. The Other.

Only the X-Men see the Buddhistic truth that these distinctions of us and them are illusions and that, on the most fundamental levels, we are all the same. Acts of ruthless violence, prejudice, and intolerance become close to impossible when we recognize this simple fact: that we are all One. The X-Men use their powers to protect people, whether mutant or human. They work consistently and passionately to secure equal rights for mutants, but they do not give in to acts of bitterness or revenge. They extend the open tolerance to others that they have not received. This is, I think, a constructive model for any minority group, particularly those I happen to belong to, that is seeking to establish its own legitimacy and secure equal rights. We cannot respond to persecution in kind; we must turn the other cheek. We must recognize the humanity and equality of those who do not recognize ours. It's not easy; many of the X-Men are tempted by Magneto's passionate andvengeful ideology. But in the end, Charles Xavier will always be the celebrated, compassionate visionary, while Magneto, with his obsession of power and hierarchy, will be hated as the meglomaniac idealogue.This all may be really obvious analysis to you, but I think its worth spelling out. No lesson could be more appropriate for our times. We live in an age of fear - fear of the Other. The X-Men invite us to protect ourselves from extremists while also respecting the humanity of all man-kind. Too many, I fear, enjoy the movie's action sequences and special effects (which were definitely fun) and don't spend too much time thinking about the premise underneath. I think we all could do with a little self-evaluation to see where and how we have employed the false notion of the Other in our ideology, in our politics, in our religion, and in our day-to-day interactions. We could be reminded of the danger of extremism and hate-mongering, of xenophobia and stereotyping. We all need to be reminded (now, tomorrow, forever) that true and lasting peace is impossible until we exchange the lie of the Other for the truth of the One (not Neo).

But, hey, it was just a movie.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Hamlet Pictures, Part 2

I was extraordinarily fortunate that, by a strange twist of fate, I was able to do Hamlet again this past semester. This was followed by being fortunate enough to continue on to be in our spring Shakespeare show: Greatest Hits. Thanks to Sam, our resident cross-dresser and MVA ("Most Valuable Actor"), I now have pictures to prove all this.



Friday, June 09, 2006

Petty Annoyances

It's been a frustrating week for me. I've tried to blog on several occasions, but nothing was coming out except for angry political rants and inflammatory statements of partisanship. Part of it, frankly, comes with my dissatisfaction with my job. But really, this has not been a good week in the news; I'm continually depressed by the state of the world. Yeah, we got Zarqawi. That's good. But somehow I couldn't bring myself to smile too much about it. Not with the death toll in Iraq growing exponentially, the absolutely ridiculous debates going on in the Senate, recent national security cuts at the hands of “strong-on-security” Republicans, not to mention the latest in the fiasco that is the lamentably weak inquiry into Bush's blatant breaking of established law. Anyway, I'll spare you all the political opinions (talk to me if you really care to hear them) and just say that the only thing that made the week bearable was the Daily Show. Jon Stewart is my hero. Seriously, I think I'm in love with him.

But the height of my frustration manifested itself yesterday during lunch. When you are already in a bad mood, petty annoyances can really get you down. Since I don't feel I can rant about the things that are really bothering me on the blog, I will content myself with humorously complaining about unimportant inconvieniances. Just for you.

I drove down to the dealership where I got my new car (which I still love, by the way, even after making my first car payment) to ask if they had received my license plates yet. I had been told that I would be called the moment they arrived, but it's been almost a month and my temporary registration expires on Saturday. After a few moments of confusion, they found my plates in their files. They'd been there since the 19th of May.

(The following is a reenactment of the incident.)

“I can't figure out why you aren't in the book,” the old lady at the counter said, over and over, “We do have these college girls who come in during the afternoon. I bet one of them neglected to do it, since it couldn't possibly have been me.”

“Shirley,” said her boss, a serious woman in a business suit, “This is the third time this has happened this week. Why don't you go through the plates and make sure they are all on our records?”

“I don't see why I should have to do that,” said the lady to me, after her boss had gone, “It was the college girls, not me.”

“Of course it was,” I said, checking the time. I was on my lunch break and had a very short amount of time to get food and get back to work.

“I mean, its so easy to get distracted and not stay on task here if you don't know what you are doing. There's a lot going on.”

“I bet,” I replied, “Can I have my plates now?”

“Oh, no, no... I have to write you down in the book. You see, we're required by law to have a written record of every set of plates that....” She paused to answer the phone, then transferred the call, “.... that comes through our... Let's see, where was I? Oh, the college girls. Yes, you see, I come in every morning until two o'clock, but in the afternoon these young girls work here. I've seen them sitting around, chatting away with customers. It's quite disgraceful. I used to work full time, but a few months back I decided, well my husband and I decided that.... oh, wait. What were you here for again? Yes, your plates. We need to put you in the book. Where's my pen? Ah, here it is. Now. Would you like us to put them on your car for you?”

“No, thank you. I can manage.”

“Are you sure? It's not a bother...” She answered the phone again.

“No, it's not a problem,” I said, after she hung up, “I'm just kind of in a hurry. I'm on my lunch break.”

“Oh, are you? I'm sorry, let me hurry and finish up here then. Let's see, what am I doing? Right, I'm writing you down in the book. Name, please? Wait, hold on....” She answered the phone again. “Ok, sorry. Your name? Ok.... Would you like us to put the plates on for you? Oh! I already asked you that, didn't I? How silly of me... Now, lets see. The number on the plates is 6..... 3......7...... oh, hold on one moment.” She answered the phone AGAIN. “Alright, now let's see. Here we go. Writing you in the book. Ok, you're all done. Wait, wait..... no, I'm sorry, you're done. Thank you for your patience!”

But I was already out the door. Once back in my car, I let out a little scream of frustration.

On my way back to work I decided to swing through the drive-through at Arby's. I was really hungry, and also dying of thirst.

“Can I take your order, sir?” asked the box.

“Yes, I'd like a number 15, please.”

“Ok, thats a roast beef sub, curly fries, and a large drink. What drink would you like?”

“Make it a Root Beer please.”

“I'm sorry, sir, we can only serve Pepsi at the drive-through.”

“Oh ok.... wait, what? I can't have a Root Beer?” I really hate Pepsi.

“No, sir, only Pepsi in the drive-through.”

“Do you realize that this is a perfect example of the illusion of choice when there really is none that exists so abundantly in an advanced capitalism such as ours?” (Ok, I didn't actually say this part out loud, but I sure wish I had!) “Basically, I can have any drink I'd like, but only if its Pepsi???”

“That will be $5.45 at the window, sir. Please pull around.” she said, tartly.

At the window, I declined to pay for the Pepsi. I took my curly fries and sub and drove off in a huff. I returned to work (also known as: the concentration camp of the mind, the gulag of the soul) and felt sorry for myself for a long, long time.

I consider myself a very patient person. Usually, I'm more than forgiving in incidents such as these. And I was, in all honesty, completely polite and patient on the exterior yesterday. But inside I was a stewing pile of discontent. I think everybody encounters this frustration now and then. Most people have at least one moment in their life, I think, where they begin to suspect that all of creation has somehow conspired against them, as if their unhappiness and dissatisfaction were a vital part of the grand scheme of things. It's easier than facing the truth that the universe, by and large, is coldly uninterested in the affairs of one tiny person on one tiny planet. The frustration, at least, lets us feel that we are somehow important, relevant. In the end, its easier to accept cosmic emnity than cosmic apathy.

Which gives credence to the idea that every man has an inner psycho killer, just waiting for the balance of power to shift just so, so it can come out and run amok with a sledgehammer.

Fortunately, things didn't go that far.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Matt's New Toy

A few weeks ago, something quite important happened in my life, and yet I neglected to mention it on my blog. I was waiting for the right moment, you see, to reveal all about it, but that moment never really arrived. There's no time like the present, I say! Actually, usually I say “eh, maybe tomorrow...” but right now I say there's no time like the present.

In the most general sense, the important event was finally becoming completely and 100% financially independent, which is pretty neat while at the same time being absolutely terrifying. For one thing, it stands as irrefutable proof that I am an adult now, a fact I usually prefer to comfortably ignore. For another, I'm not sure I wish to place the responsibility of handling all my finances on to somebody so remarkably unsuited for the job. I'm still a bit hazy on how this whole “rent” thing works, so just forget about me understanding investments or loans or interest rates. Still, it was a step that had to be made, and as of this moment my parents no longer have any financial obligation towards me.

Frankly, its been almost that way for a long time. The only thing keeping it from happening totally was the fact that I was driving a car, and my parents were paying for it. It was very gracious of them, and we were all happy with the arrangement until just a few weeks ago. My parents suddenly had an urgent need to have the car back, and I realized I didn't fancy driving the blasted thing all the way to South Carolina. It doesn't have a tape/CD player or cruise control! Would you want to drive over two thousand miles without cruise control? Think of the muscle damage in your foot! I mean, hello, this is the 21st century!

So I bought a new car. Now, I haven't mentioned this on my blog because I didn't want to deal with all kinds of stupid questions like “Was that a bit rash?” or “Can you actually afford a car?” Silly questions! But since most people who read my blog (by last count, about five people) know about the car by now, I might as well reveal all.

Since I know absolutely nothing about cars, I did a lot of research before buying. Let me tell you something you already know, buying a car is a painful, tedious experience. If I had a choice between enduring a painful root canal or trying to buy a car by myself, I'd run to the dentist's office (I need to go the dentist actually, now that I think about it). It's exhausting! Fortunately for me, I had a friend who used to be a car salesman come along with me. More than anything, he made me feel comfortable that everything that was going on was normal and that I was getting a fair deal.

I eventually decided, after all my research, that the new 2007 Toyota Yaris was the car for me. Why? Look at it!

It looks like a monster! A hot, sexy monster! You're not sure if its going to eat you or make out with you. It also gets really good gas mileage for a non-hybrid, is fun to drive (its a manual), and has a remarkably spacious interior and trunk space for all my junk. It's distinctive and has a lot of personality, unlike the incredibly boring and dull Nissan Sentra I looked at, which had the personality equivalent of income tax worksheet.

These are all features that will be great benefits on my long, long eastward trek in a few months. So the car makes me happy, and it's been totally worth it. And since I haven't had to make a monthly payment yet, it still feels like a free car! (That will end really quick, let me tell you.)

Was this a wise decision? I think so, but, as the Bush administration is fond of telling us, only history can be the judge. For now, I'm going to enjoy living life in the fast and “in debt” lane. If you see me coming up behind you, better move over!