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Monday, February 19, 2007

The Trip

Note: The story of the Trip is written in twelve parts, which are meant to be read in order. Though each post could stand on its own, they should be seen as individual movements in a much larger piece. The conventional format of a blog (newest posts on top) does not lend itself well to this type of work, and so they are being presented as "sub-Posts" of this one post. To read one of the parts, click on its title. (You may collapse the post later by clicking the title again.) At the end of each sub-post is a link to its own post page, which includes any comments which are addressed to that specific post. If you have any other questions, please ask them in the feedback page, and they will be answered.

And without further ado: The Trip.



On our family's trip to America, I didn't miss home one bit. I didn't miss Willy and Fudgie too much, though I worried about them, and the same goes for the Gamecube. I didn't even miss my computer, actually. The one thing I missed was my screensaver.

Normally I wouldn't have a screensaver. It's not like I need one, especially since I turn my monitor off every time I walk away from it. But practicality has nothing to do with this. Only a little bit before we left, I got a screensaver called Electric Sheep. It's sort of an ever-changing medley of abstract animations, only prettier than that sounds. Most people see something pretty, they say "That's nice." and move on. But I can sit and watch Electric Sheep for hours. I don't know why- I just like looking at pretty things. The little artistic moments are what I live for.

The last time I'd seen Electric Sheep was the day before we left Israel. I was sitting and staring at my screen, and the rest of the family was running around frantically preparing. "What's to prepare?", I said. "Clothes!", my parents yelled at me. I packed clothes, a bunch of Game Boy games -------
Super Mario Bros., Metroid: Zero Mission, Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga
(with Final Fantasy Tactics Advance still in my Game Boy), and what little American money I had. Then I took a large portion of our DVD collection to watch in the car. And I had all I needed.

After saying goodbye to my friends on the Adventure Gamers forum and locking my computer, all I had left to do was set up the Gamecube for the neighbors. I was hoping (in vain, as it would turn out) that it would be used for more than Mario Party, and I figured whoever wanted to play Beyond Good & Evil or Pikmin should at least have good-quality stereo sound (which our TV, with its poor-quality mono speaker, couldn't provide). So I set up the speakers from my computer by the TV. Now, I didn't want anyone to adjust the volume on the speakers because the left speaker has a tendency to stop working when you do. So I had to make sure it was on just the right level, in the interest of being a good host. And that was all the excuse I needed to once again wander around in Metroid Prime for a few hours. (I was ready for the trip already.) It was good to be back in Tallon IV.

Though I went to bed early, the rest of my family was still running around and yelling outside my door. I fell asleep as soon as they all shut up. I woke up again at around one or so, too nervous to get back to sleep. So I went downstairs and paced around, thinking about the trip. I wasn't too eager to see my extended family at the bar mitzvah- people I hadn't seen in around ten years and probably wouldn't see again in just about as long. My cousins themselves? It's not like we ever had anything to talk about. Come to think of it, I wasn't even anxious to see my siblings: Miriam had started the trip two weeks early by flying to Florida, and the house had been more peaceful without her. And Benjy had lived in Boston for so long it was hard to believe we'd ever been related.

But I was excited to be seeing my grandparents' house again. I really missed that house.

And then I just paced around some more, imagining a trip taken with some sort of strange computer worn on the head. (By this point I really should have been back in bed.) And I composed myself a little folk song to go with that concept. -------
Moving forward on a random route, I'm thinkin',
This is what life's all about-
Just one man in the wild, on his own.
Moving onwards in any direction,
With a wireless internet connection--
A little man and his home.
I didn't like it even as I made it up, but it had a catchy tune which I couldn't get out of my head. Finally I went back to sleep.

My alarm woke me up early that morning. I turned it off, put on some clothes, and sat on the floor waiting for my brain to boot up. Then I sat downstairs 'til it was okay to play piano. Well, I had to wait a little longer actually. See, my mother was davening, and she said it was okay with her if I played. So I did. But then my father walked in, and got furious at my inconsideration. It was such a ridiculous argument, but that's what my father does under pressure- he demonstrates that he is in control of the situation. For instance, once my mother finished she asked how they'd follow the news from Israel while we were away. He said: "We won't turn on the radio or talk politics- we're going on vacation! We're going to have fun! Even you!"

I figured by that point it would be okay to play piano. I had just come up with a new musical theme (nothing special, but sort of pretty) in the time it took him to walk Fudgie, and I wanted to develop it a little. But my father still wouldn't let me play, even though I was literally ready to walk out the door. "We're taking suitcases now. Help take the suitcases." I took a suitcase, and he still wouldn't let me play. I guess he wanted to control for himself the pace we took in leaving, and my leisurely attitude didn't fit with that. Or maybe it was just the volume (above pianissimo) he objected to. I waited for the taxi.

The cab driver talked a lot as we drove, which was interesting to me. It must be a boring job to drive from place to place, I thought. People only see you as "the cab driver". But inside the car, he's no less a person than his passengers. No, it's not a particularly profound thought, but you take what you can get when you're nervous and tired! So he talked about politics, and of course my parents talked about politics. When we got to the airport, the lady doing security ("Has anyone given you anything since you packed your bags?) was similarly outgoing, making lots of smalltalk with my parents as she checked our passports.

I hadn't been in Ben-Gurion airport since it was redesigned- and I was blown away! The ceiling in the hall you enter from is fairly transparent, so that the room seems twice as big as it really is. So I remembered that the last time I was there, it had seemed much smaller. Then there's this gorgeous waiting area, with a waterfall in the center of the room and stores circling around it. What amazing architecture!

The flight was not bad, or at least as close to "not bad" as a flight of that length can be. My father had bought me a new Mad magazine when we were in the airport (just to be nice), apparently not realizing how far the quality had fallen since the good ol' days when he was subscribed. It was trash from cover to cover- phony humor calculated by marketers to as large a target audience as possible. Oh well. I watched a movie, and played for hours in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. And that still left lots of hours of waiting.

The longer you wait, the less meaning the passage of time seems to have. After a while, sitting in that plane in that cramped seat seemed like my whole existence. It was a long flight. Someday, I reminded myself roughly twenty times in all, there would be nearly instantaneous transportation, and we could make trips like this all the time! And then I'd look at the walls of the plane sadly. And wait.

Somehow, I reached the end of the flight (Strange.), and we walked into JFK airport. And the whole building was gray in 90-degree angles! "What terrible architecture!", I said. So my mother responded that it just looked like a bureaucracy. And so it did. I would have payed more notice to the strange (to me, at least) accents people were using if they were using them for anything other than rehearsed business talk. And I would have noticed how they looked, if they weren't standing quite so straight in their places as if they were pillars the building was standing on.

Oy vey!, I thought. I've entered the accursed land of practicality!

Greed and Galuttony*

Greed and Galuttony*

*pronounced "gah-LOOT-uh-nee"

In the airport, a simple cart to carry our luggage with cost us three dollars. My mother said, "I guess some people would say that's an example of capitalism at its finest." "Of course.", I added, "Capitalism is all about ripping off people for as much money as possible." For the next hour, as we waited for (just like last time I'd been to JFK) the broken luggage conveyor belt to start working and give us our luggage (because who'd pay to fix it?), I pondered that maybe Americans did go quite a bit past practicality. I mean, this cart (which happened to be falling apart) wasn't an ordinary cart. No, this one had a brake system! And for what practical purpose does a $3.00 function like that need to be in a luggage cart? It's not about practicality- it's about grubbing money.

The one kosher restaurant in the center of Washington D.C. cost a sizeable fortune for each meal. Why, when they could charge a reasonable amount? Because they could get that money, being the only kosher restaurant nearby. (It looked like a terrible restaurant, too!) So we had to walk for more than an hour in the scorching heat to find a dinky little museum cafeteria reported to be kosher. Actually, they had only three things on the menu with rabbinic supervision, which were roughly edible. Though it might not have been obscenely expensive, I as a person who had to actually taste this food can say that it was severely overpriced- they should have been paying us. And then they sold me a Good Humor bar which seemed to have been melted and refrozen. Why would they sell trash like that? Why, because they could get our money, of course.

The other side of this greed, naturally, is the reward paid in excess. All the houses we saw were enormous by Israeli standards. The families we stayed by always had several cars, as if one wasn't enough to get you from point A to point B. The digital cable has hundreds of channels, even though there's never anything on any of them. Excess is a way of life there. And I guess that as long as its pursuit for its own sake doesn't become the driving force in life, that's not bad. I don't know if it actually is a driving force- we weren't there that long.

What was a little bit troubling for me is that no one seemed to appreciate any of this. This wasn't amazing architecture, such that the space was needed to make the house feel just right. And it wasn't actually being used. It didn't look lived in, it didn't look wanted, it just looked empty. Like a person would be ashamed to have a house without all that excess space he'd never use in it. It seemed like every house had a piano in it, even though most of these families never played on it. So these musical instruments just sat, often out of tune and sometimes completely broken, just sat and took up space where it would catch people's eyes.

And then... what? Would these people just sit themselves down and start playing, finally serving the purpose the piano was created for? Or would their esteem of the piano's owner increase? Or maybe their eyes would just pass over it without recognition, no matter how well placed it was, because they've seen it so many times before.

I'm not sure whether any of this is good or bad, or even if a value judgement should be made here. But it certainly gave me food for thought.

Now, excess with appreciation- that's something else entirely. All art is excess- it serves no practical purpose. If we lived our lives obsessed with practicality we'd live in huts and eat vegetables all our lives. Bl'bah! And though I didn't notice it at all, my family mentioned that there was a lot of obesity around. So I suppose my association of America as a whole with practicality was way off. Maybe they limit practicality to work. Hm. I guess what I'm saying is I was overwhelmed by all this, and still don't exactly know what to think of it.

There's a lot to like in a money-driven culture, certainly. One of my favorite days of the trip was the very last one, in which we just stopped at a mall and shopped. I never like doing that here, because there's nothing to shop for. But though America doesn't make many good games, they sure sell 'em! On the one hand, there were three game stores in this mall in close proximity to each other, all members of one single game store chain, so two points for excess. But on the other hand, I could actually walk into a store, hand them physical money, and walk out five minutes later with games! I can't tell you how refreshing that was, and I only wish I could have that sort of set-up integrated into my life instead of visiting it once.

Maybe that's really all there is to it- envy. I knew we couldn't really afford this trip- we were outsiders to this whole consumerist lifestyle. And I got to be treated like a king regardless. We stayed at a Hampton Inn, with comfortable beds and free little bottles of shampoo and pretty good TVs, and just a few minutes after Benjy and I came into our room the phone rang. I answered, and it was someone from the hotel staff. He had called just to ask if there was anything we needed. It's such a little thing, but it was so perfect. "No, everything's great!", I answered. "Enjoy your stay in Hampton Inn.", he said. And with a huge grin on my face I joyfully concluded, "Thank you sir!" Okay, so people don't actually live like that and it is meant to be a one-time visit. But do you think inns are like that here?

I was jealous when I practically saw a Dunkin' Donuts on every street. And every time we passed one in the car, I pointed and yelled out excitedly to my family, "Dunkin' Donuts!". I have very fond memories of Dunkin' Donuts from Israel. I used to savor the taste of a Caramel Boston Creme on the very rare occasion I got one. And I imagine the rarity is not a factor which should be overlooked. Anyway, I've got a lot of nostalgia for that doughnut chain, which closed in Israel because no one could afford them on a regular basis. We didn't actually go into one on this trip, though, because my parents said they were rarely kosher. Yep, envy.

The first place we went from JFK airport was my Aunt Shari's house. Her house was not as big as some others, but Oh My! was it luxurious. The key word here was comfort. Rain outside, comfortable furniture, welcoming color schemes in each room. And then there was the basement, where I slept. Wowsers. She has one of those giant high-definition TVs, and let me tell you, it does make a difference. And she has a first-rate 7.1-speaker surround sound system hooked into it, and in the center of this reasonably-sized and cozy room was the most comfortable couch. And I turned the TV to a dreamy music channel, let the sound wash over me, and rested my head back in perfect bliss. And I sighed:

"Ah, money."

Socializing in Solo

Socializing in Solo

If you give six people something to do by themselves, and then have them do it while they're in a room together, is that a social experience?

For instance, say the activity is actually inactivity, more specifically the inactivity of waiting and the act of looking out the window absent-mindedly. Say the environment we're talking about here is a car, just to make it easier to visualize. And to add a human touch, let's say it's a family in the car. Is this a social environment, or just a combination of six solitary environments?

I could certainly see the multiplayer aspect of a family sitting in a car if that family happened to be fighting. But say they're listening to the radio, or not even so much as listening to the radio. In theory, the people should get bored and have no choice but to start talking, at which point the environment will become a social one. In theory.

But let us further assume that in this family there are not enough common interests to start up a conversation, or at least a conversation which will engage more than two or three of the passengers. Maybe three of the family members are in a heated discussion about politics, while the other three are left out due to their own disinterest. We can say that there are four wholly separate "environments" (one involving three people, the other three involving one each) existing within this car. Whether those left out are doing anything or not, and what they are doing, is completely irrelevant for identifying socialization, because their presence does not affect anyone around them.

Now, at this point you may very well be suprised to learn that this is not really a hypothetical scenario at all, but in fact a true story in which the characters are my family (myself included). But do not worry!- The situation is not quite as hopeless as you might think, for we had a DVD player in the car!

Now, watching a DVD is a single-player activity, so to speak. The filmmaker (excepting certain specific cases) gives no thought to what social context the video will be viewed in- the best, most pure way to enjoy a movie is with as few social distractions as possible, so that you can view it on its own terms rather than the random social context it has been placed in.

You probably have already anticipated the question which I am leading toward (Well done!): "How does a one-person experience fare in a setting with more than one person?" We all know that it works fairly well in a theater setting, due to the unspoken rule "SHUT UP AND WATCH THE MOVIE!". (It is unspoken mostly because everyone has shut up and is watching the movie.) A car is a smaller yet more chaotic setting, because not everyone is involved in the watching of the movie. The screen is placed in between the backs of the front seats, hanging from the ceiling. Thus there are at all times two people (one thankfully being the driver) who cannot see the movie. Keep in mind that they can hear it nonetheless.

Some of the rules are inherited from theater, to retain some measure of common courtesy. Namely, no one person should control the pacing, and all present are to remain silent for the entire duration of the film. At this point we have six solo experiences within the car: four viewings of the movie, and two waitings in silence, with a little driving added in. This situation may seem stable at first, but it is not. The two in front (one of whom happens to like to have control over the situation in his car) are bored enough to talk but forbidden to, and so they occupy themselves with the one activity left to them:
Fiddling with the volume control to make the louder portions of the movie less unpleasant for themselves.

Suddenly a social experience emerges, and a complex one at that. The volume is adjusted only at especially loud segments (such as action scenes), but a good movie will usually not be perfectly consistant in its dynamics and so the softer portions, often containing only dialogue, cannot be heard at all. And so the four interact between each other, with exchanges like this:
"What did he say?"
"I don't know- I didn't hear. Did you hear what he said?"
"Me? No- you're the one by the speaker!"
"But I was leaning over here to see the screen better! What did he say, really?"
"Is that my fault?"
"I think he said something about horses and windmills."
"Your ears are broken, he said something like 'I have no foot with which to eat my lunch.'!"
"Shut up and let me watch the movie!"

And then the four viewers must put their trust in one of their number, sitting in the middle row, to control the pacing so they can watch that segment over and over again. When it turns out that it still can't be heard, another facet of this game appears, in which one brave member of the viewers must ask one or the other of the nonviewers to raise the volume again, while taking into account which of the two was the one to lower it in the first place (so as not to offend), how much time has passed since the lowering, how many times he and/or others have asked (at risk of frustrating the front-sitters), how forceful such a request must be and whether it need be asked several times, and the fact that everyone in the car knows that it will get louder again later and again upset the driver and his companion. In the meantime the movie has still been playing, leading to more flow-control, and the front-sitters have taken the opportunity presented by the commotion (an indication that the movie has lost focus) to start a short conversation between themselves. All participants in this now-unified car may bask in the light of the social atmosphere.

And now we may return to the original question, and ask: "If you give each six people a single-player experience, and then have them do it while they're stuck with the others, is that a social experience?" And now we see in practice the answer which was obvious from the start:


But if you stick these chaos-ridden people in a room together, unless the setting is as stable and time-tested as can be, one of these people is likely to stop playing in their own corner and start affecting everyone else. At that point, all involved will be having a social experience.

And I hope I've made myself clear: This is most assuredly NOT a good thing.

Throwing a one-person experience into an unstable social environment is like throwing a person into a pit of untamed crocodiles. Big ones. With sharp teeth and nasty tempers.

Volume is one problem, and it was as much a concern when I was trying to listen to music as when we were watching a DVD- more so, in fact. The solution would be some sort of "audio contrast" control, which the divergence of the volume from the norm would be divided by. (If you lower the audio contrast to 0%, the volume stays consistantly at one level. If you raise it to 150%, all differences in dynamics are exaggerated. In this case, we'd want to keep it around 40% or so.) It would detract very much from the quality of the single-player experience, but concessions must be made to the crocodiles in order to escape the worse alternative. Audio contrast is a very important feature to the stereo system of any social environment used for music and movies with changing dynamics -like say a car. Too bad it doesn't actually exist.

Even if it did, the volume problem wouldn't go away in all settings. At almost every social setting on the whole trip, I played the piano. What else would I do- talk? Neah, I preferred to show off. So I would play for them much as I do at home to amuse myself. It was a form of socialization to begin with here, because it was affecting the people around me. (This is not to say that I payed any notice at all of whether anyone actually wanted me to play- I didn't care.) Now, I was trying to be considerate to some degree, so I didn't play my most bombastic pieces. Some people commented that my music could be classified as "easy listening" music, and I pointed out that under the circumstances I couldn't very well play anything else. But that wasn't enough for my father, who kept coming over (every time I did this, several times) and begging me to "keep it down". I was the one in control of the volume here, playing the piano as a single-player game, but it was a crowd. It doesn't work, I tell you.

Pacing is another frequent problem. When we were at The Art Institute of Chicago, I tried to savor each pretty painting I came across. Well, not every pretty painting, but there were some which grabbed my eye, and I'd just stand for minutes, not really analyzing so much as looking through the "window" the frame was, into this other world within. This isn't exactly how my sisters approached the museum. Miriam and Dena must have ran through the rooms, because my father came to tell me that they were bored so it was time to leave. Art is something which must be appreciated for yourself. It's not a group activity. And we put it in a social setting, and -smush- there goes half the experience.

We were only in Illinois for two days. I wanted to stay. No, I mean for good- I really do love my grandparents' house. I enjoyed myself just walking back and forth in their house, I love it so much. We didn't do all that much in Illinois, but that's the thing about contentment- it doesn't rely on keeping busy. It didn't take me any time at all from the time we arrived to get settled into "my" room- it really did feel like coming home. I didn't want to go. It was a personal thing, between me and the house. And we had come as a family. We left.

My family

My family

Family trips are about standing around smiling for photos.

I don't do that.

I didn't get the true family trip experience.

What I did get is a fair amount of time sitting around with these people. This was the most forgettable part of the trip.

But surely I learned something about my family I didn't know before? Surely I bonded with them more than I could have at home...?


I did learn some stuff about Benjy, I guess. Or maybe I'd known it before, but forgot it because it'd been so long since seeing him.

One thing I learned is that he has a pretty good artistic sense.
When we were at Niagara Falls on the "Maid of the Mist" boat ride, there was one priceless moment I noticed. There was a speaker on the boat with recorded tour info playing for the first few minutes of the ride- you know, boring dates and stuff. Halfway through, we reached the climax of the experience, being right next to the waterfall and getting totally drenched. And at that precise moment, the speaker announced in that proud marketing voice, "Welcome to Niagara Falls!" It was like a movie, where they hold off the opening title for a few minutes. Whoever had written that knew exactly what people were coming for.

Well, I was surprised that Benjy noticed that, too. When he got off the boat, he mentioned it, so that's how I know.

Oh, and he's a smart photographer. He brought his camera everywhere, but as he put it, "I prefer not to set up my shots.". Instead, he tries to take more natural pictures of how everyone would have been standing anyway. I like that.

Benjy had this wacky idea, when we were in Detroit, of a variant of Ping Pong which even the little kids present could join in on. In this game, it didn't matter if the ball went completely off the table, so long as it was bouncing like a basketball. So the game environment included the entire room and everything/one in it. It was so chaotic, it reminded me of games Benjy used to make up when we lived in New Jersey. And it occured to me that games are more fun when there aren't any rigid rules, and you just play. That's something Benjy's always known.

My father really enjoyed the trip. Sure, it was hectic, but we got to do some stuff he loved. Namely, the International Spy Museum. Though we really had to rush through that, it really sparked his imagination. He wouldn't stop talking about espionage for around two weeks after that. It was a really fun museum.

In Chicago, my father played ping pong with us. He hadn't played in around ten years. And he whipped us at that game. Occasionally I see something like that, which reminds me that he's a very multi-talented guy. Most of the time, he's just running around doing things.

He and my mother had some nostalgic fun in Boston and Baltimore going to the places they lived and went to college. They both enjoyed that, though my father enjoyed it much more (You could see it on his face.).

In Baltimore we stopped by a couple who'd been good friends with my parents back then. And I learned the amusing anecdote that even back in college, my mother was trying to stay busy helping everyone else out. They called her "Mother Fallet". My mother didn't remember that, but it makes sense. She hasn't changed so much.

I don't think my mother knew what to do with herself on this trip. We were staying at hotels and other people's houses, where she couldn't do all the chores. And she doesn't know how to have fun. It was pretty sad seeing her sitting with me watching TV when there wasn't anything good on. She wasn't enjoying it, yet she was even watching the commercials because she just couldn't think of anything to do, what with the lack of political/social activities to volunteer for.

I'm pretty sure she enjoyed all the schmoozing she did, though. She generally likes that.

My sisters were, um, there.

Miriam kept singing pop songs wherever we were, and I kept trying to get her to stop.

Dena kept criticizing me for being so weird, and I ignored her.

Excellence vs. Accessibility

Excellence vs. Accessibility

On the long trip to Detroit, I handed my father a CD to put in the player. It was Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, one of the greatest works of music ever composed. Beethoven liked to make use of strong contrasts in dynamics for dramatic effect, and so I found myself pressing my left ear to the speaker in order to hear anything at all. I did my best under the circumstances to appreciate the hour-long masterwork, as my family chatted loudly amongst themselves and waited for the whole thing to finish already. It is a piece of music which aims to do absolutely everything in one work, going so far as including an opera in the final movement. Even in that awful setting, I gained a new level of appreciation for the music as I listened. But why should any of that interest my family? They just got a kick out of hearing "Ode to Joy" toward the end; otherwise, it had no appeal for them.

It reached its satisfying conclusion, I took the disc back, and my father turned on the radio. What I heard was a short song which sounded just like any other, with phoney romantic lyrics market-tested to appeal to as large a target audience as possible, with the most obvious harmonic progression you could think of, but a slightly catchy simplistic tune. Miriam and Dena asked my father to raise the volume because they'd heard this song before. He did so, and why not?- the volume was a constant all the way through.

To summarize: Two hundred years ago, there was music which aimed to do everything. Now, there is music which aims to do nothing. Now that's progress.

But I wondered if I shouldn't lose sight of what audience the music was dealing with. My family weren't the sort of audience who cared enough about music to appreciate greatness, but they were looking for some mild entertainment they could use to keep themselves occupied for a few minutes at a time, and if it was soft and inobtrusive enough to allow them to chat on top of it, so much the better. They wanted to not have to get too involved, they wanted simple tunes diluted with simple lyrics. The music on the radio isn't an unwanted plague, it's serving a popular demand.

I can relate to wanting simplification, wanting more accessibility. When we went to Lincoln Memorial, I had a hard time figuring out what the point was, faced with historical context and the specific wording of a historic speech and an image of a historical figure. That's because I just don't care for history, and am unwilling to put in the effort I'd need to understand it.

But in Boston, we heard a small part of a tour about history which I actually enjoyed. Sillily, the tour guide was an actor dressed in old-fashioned clothes. He wasn't a historian at all, just a good storyteller, expressing historical trivia as compelling tales of ordinary people. It wasn't particularly informative, considering that I don't remember anything he said, but I had a very good few minutes listening to each story. I didn't want a history lesson of the sort that only appeals to enthusiasts, because I didn't have the patience nor the interest for history. But what's wrong with enjoying a little bit of simplified history on my level?

It occurred to me that if history were told (accurately, of course) through dramatic movies and exploration games, then most everyone, myself included, would love learning history.

After the Shabbat we spent in Detroit, one of my newly-bar-mitzvahed-cousins showed Benjy and me a flight simulator he liked: Microsoft Flight Simulator 2002. He had a joystick, and I waited eagerly to see him take off and have some fun flying. It took him ten minutes just to get off the ground, because this simulator was so obsessed with realism that he needed to go through dozens of communications with the tower in preparation, and needed to fiddle with many little doohickeys in the cockpit to be able to take off. When he did take off (using the joystick) and had the plane on its way, he put the joystick down and put the plane on auto-pilot. Apparently, this game was designed entirely for realism -not fun. There was no reward for any of the actions the player took, no excitement, no danger. It was so mundane. I begged him to crash the plane, so that we could at least see an explosion. But he was too responsible a virtual pilot. Yawn.

What I would want to see in a flight game is the experience of flying distilled to the raw thrill of soaring around. You should be able to use that joystick to swing around wildly, thrown off course by every gust of wind, and feel like you are the plane (or preferably a bird) flying free. That's an accessible feeling, a universal feeling. Maybe it wouldn't last for more than a minute or two, but that short time would be such wonderful wish fulfillment.

In Illinois, my grandfather took us out on his boat. He's got a really nice boat, with a refrigerator and a dining room and a bedroom and a bathroom and a nice set-up for the radio. It's a good, reliable boat with all sorts of digital doohickeys all over the place. I wasn't interested in learning to use those doohickeys to use the wind for maximum speed, nor was I interested in understanding what every little bit of the boat was there for, so I just sat in my place and let Benjy and my father help out.

Now, the ideal work would work on both levels. It would be deep enough for pros, but accessible enough to pull in ordinary people so that they might become pros. As I sat, I pictured a fantasy metalude set on an ocean a la The Wind Waker, which would have a great deal of realism in its sailing mechanics (unlike that game's simplistic accessibility) but remain universal in its appeal by using that fictional setting to justify the effort. I'd be perfectly willing to be guided through the real-world nuances of sailing if I saw an interesting-looking uncharted island far off that was sure to have some excitement on it. The lure of the great unknown would pull in the newcomer (initially learning the ropes from an NPC with him), who would then get caught up in the depth of the simulator and have fun not only on the island but in between islands as well.

The last time we saw our other grandparents in Boston, they wanted to take a family photo while they could. They'd had a flat tire, so we were by a street. They didn't like that, but it's what we had. I wished I had had a camera of my own, but it was too late for that. I stood for their picture in a distracted pose, as if I'd rather not be in that particular photo. I couldn't stop them from taking only the most accessible type of picture, and I wasn't sure that I should. But I had the opportunity to add some depth and truth to the image, and so I did.

Diversity (and lack thereof)

Diversity (and lack thereof)

I imagine the world is a big place. But it doesn't seem that way.

Okay, space-wise it's big. And it sure took a lot of time to go the length we did, both by plane and car.

But I'm accustomed to videogames, where I can go from a boiling hot desert with erupting volcanoes and flying lava and rock-monsters attack to a frozen forest with no gravity and funny-looking animal-people who live in invisible shoes just by taking an elevator. So my standards aren't in sync with the Real World.

The Real World isn't so exquisitely designed. Once we left the airport, apart from the language difference we might as well have still been in Tel Aviv. Roads, roads, and more roads awaited us. And here's the kicker: They were black with white stripes and green signs.

What? That doesn't shock you? Well, it should! What a lack of imagination! Would it have killed these countries to be original? Where's the place, I asked everyone around, with pink and yellow roads? Where's the place where the roads are all underground?

See, I don't think it's enough for each place you go to to have different coordinates on the map. I think each place should feel different. How were the roads here any different than the Israeli roads? Hmmm:
  • The traffic lights were slightly different.
  • There were more pronounced sidewalks.
  • Did I mention the traffic lights? Oh, and there were fewer zebra-striped crosswalks too.
Already you can see that the price of the plane ticket was totally worth it.

We actually crossed the border into Canada, but if it weren't for the different pictures on the crossing lights and the font on the road signs, I might never have known. The roads looked the same there too.

And why is it that every car looks the same? I know people always think I'm stupid for asking that but- They do! Where are the one-seaters? Where are the triple-decker ones? Where are the long thin ones with three seats, one in back of the other? Where are the ones where the driver is underneath the rest of the seats, by the wheels? Or on top of the roof, where he can get a real view?

And not only were they all the same design, but they all seemed to be the same boring colors as well! I couldn't have picked our rented car out from the rest in a parking lot, because they were all the same color. What good is having a DVD player on the inside, when on the outside it looks so bland? (How bland? Well, I can't remember what color it was- that's how bland.) Where were the cars with polka dots?

So what about the people? Surely, you ask, I met hundreds of interesting people while driving all that distance?

Heh. No, I'm just kidding- I know you didn't ask that. I mean, everyone knows that the last thing you'll see on the road is a human being! (Except for the oddly friendly American cops, who are too busy doing their two jobs to actually be human.) It's the beauty of progress- once upon a time, everyone walked everywhere through lovely forests and lava-filled monster-ridden deserts, and along the way they met everyone else who happened to be walking. (It should be noted that back then, roads probably looked different from each other.) Then one day Mr. Ford came along, and everyone could finally hide their individuality from everyone else inside identical boxes of metal. And humanity, as a whole, breathed a sigh of relief.

Oh yes, people love to pretend they're no different from everyone else. My father was constantly insisting that I tuck in my tzitzit, because having them out would stand out too much in America. And then he also forced me to shave off my beard, and even the little messy tufts of hair on my cheeks! I liked those blatantly asymmetrical tufts. You look at the messy-tufts, and you say, "That's Mory.". Or at least that was the plan, which was why I was growing them at different lengths. He forced me to shave the messy-tufts off, so that I'd look more "normal" for the bar mitzvah pictures. Bleh!

There's one place where, horror of horrors, you actually have to see people who look different than you, and that's waiting on a line. While we were on a line for the "Maid of the Mist", we saw a bunch of Amish people. I don't think I'd seen any Amish before. My family thought they looked weird, and I think they saw that as a bad thing.

Myself, I thought they looked weird too. But weird is good! See, if someone looks different than you, you start to wonder if they live different too. If you were to see someone whose legs sprouted out of the top of his head and walked upside-down, you'd wonder if gravity was reversed where he lived and they all walked on ceilings. And that's a good thing to think about! Every time you see weirdness, the world grows a little.

The real problem is all the people who don't stand out, because as far as anyone else is concerned they don't exist. They're just a shadow of the larger culture, not individuals. They might as well be doing a job and wearing uniforms for all the humanity they display. Because ultimately, humanity is all about that weirdness, I think.

And people are weird, whether or not they show it. I bet every person in those cars is a fascinating individual in his own right. But driving through identical road after road, seeing them only as the inside of a metal box, you'd never know it.

I imagine the world really is a big place. But it doesn't seem that way.

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance

I brought four games with me on the trip, but in all the free time I had (of which there was much), I only ever got around to playing one: Final Fantasy Tactics Advance.* (The long title, in case you're wondering, is because it was a tremendously simplified reworking -designed for the Game Boy Advance system- of the very difficult and inaccessible, story-driven and acclaimed Final Fantasy Tactics from 1997, itself a spin-off of the Final Fantasy RPG series.) It's a "tactical role-playing game", if that means anything to you. And it's by far the most addictive game I've ever played.

The gameplay goes something like this: You've got (within the context of the story the game's developers wanted to tell) a team of assorted types of fighters which you put together yourself. You decide what the job of each should be (ninja, archer, healer, sorceror, gunner, etc.), what abilities they should learn (immobilizing, healing, blinding, fire attack, reactive dodge, etc.), and essentially how you want them to work within the group. You are to develop each character from a useless shell into a unique fighter which can make practical contributions to the success of the missions you take, of which there are many to choose from. You take each "person" defined only by name and species, and give him purpose. Then you make use of them in practice, in relatively easy strategic battles, some of which are designed to push the story forward.

During all the time I played this game on the trip (of which there was much), I barely progressed through the story at all. Why bother? The more fun part is setting it all up, so I went only through the less meaningful battles, solely for the sake of giving my team experience I could work with. Besides, fights are fun for their own sake; I didn't need (or want) to be told why we were fighting.

The first time I ever played FFTA, it was on a "borrowed" copy. In fact, I played it twice from start to finish on that copy. The first time, I was figuring out the rules as I went along. The second time, I understood the basics, so I could finally appreciate the experience. And even by the end of the second playthrough (and it's not a particularly short game the way I play it), I'd barely scratched the surface of the potential in this game. So I resolved to buy my own copy. I bought one used copy off eBay, and it gave a very rare error message so I sent it back for a refund. Then I bought a used copy again, this time from Gamestop's website, and got exactly the same very rare error message. I suspect that it was in fact the very same cartridge I'd gotten rid of. So I bought it a third time, directly from a person I trusted.

That was the copy I was playing on.

You think that's excessive? Hm, maybe it is. But it sure was fun. During the boredom of waiting which seemed to go on forever, I appreciated being able to escape into this fantasy world where potential is so easily tapped, where (unlike other tactical RPGs) progress comes easy, where money is so easy to come by that the hard part is finding something new to use it on, and where every moment truly is what you make of it.

Not that the game is perfect. A few remnants of the Real World found their way in. Laws, for instance. What a nuisance. Every situation has its own arbitrary rules which must be obeyed, sometimes rules which completely block you from doing what ought to be done. Then there's the messy menu system, which makes all that lovely micromanagement a little harder to get at. And then there were the broken shoulder buttons on my Game Boy, which progressively got worse over the trip. By the time we were on the plane back, I couldn't play the game at all. Still, none of these factors prevented the game from being the best kind of escapism.

But the worst aspect of the game, by far, is the story. (And maybe now you'll see why I didn't want to progress through it!) It goes something like this: A bunch of small, unremarkable kids live miserably in the Real World in a small, unremarkable town called Ivalice. One is paralyzed, one is constantly teased, one is frequently beaten up by bullies, our hero (by the name of Marche) has lost a mother and rarely gets to see his father, and all four have to go to school. Their lives are completely meaningless, and they wish it were more like that video game series they like -"Final Fantasy"- with monsters and magic and epic quests and meaningful stories. Now, the kids happen to stumble across a standard-issue Magic Book™ and accidentally turn their town of Ivalice into the Kingdom of Ivalice, where all their fantasies can become reality. The player plays Marche, who for the entire course of the game is trying to destroy the fantasy Ivalice to get back to the real one.

And that's where they lose me. Basically, what the developers are saying is: "Hey kids! Escapism is bad! That miserable reality you live in? That's good!". So this boy Marche comes across as a bit of a moron. His friends try to reason with him, try to get him to appreciate all the countless ways in which the fantasy is better than reality and their lives are better for it. And he always counters with: "But it's just escapism! Don't you see it's wrong?". Yes, the main character in this game is actively trying to get the game to end.

And why should it? Why should I have to turn the game off and put it away? Why can't I just keep standing in place, pushing the characters to the limits of their potential and having fun? For that matter, why doesn't the game have expansion packs which add in new content to keep the game going? Or why couldn't it have been an online game, so that you never should run out of good (and bad) opponents and the developers can keep adding in new options for growth -new jobs, new abilities, new types of strategy, new storylines? Why can't I play this game for the rest of my life?

Magic book, take me too!

Wishing for Permanence

Wishing for Permanence

We took a tour of the Library of Congress. The tour itself was silly, but it was quite inspiring to see all those books in that one massive room, where anyone could read them. "But you don't read books!", Benjy interrupted. "I don't read books in practice;", I argued, "I like this place in principle." That started a little bit of an argument, because Benjy thought it was hypocritical to like an idea without wanting to follow it oneself. But I really did love the idea behind that place, my own dislike of reading notwithstanding. (If I'd realized then that there were comics there, I don't think his side of the argument could have held up.) I liked that anyone from the public could walk in there and start reading any book he could imagine. I liked that this library had an air of permanence to it, so that future generations could have access to all this. But most of all, I liked the idea that a person could potentially make this building into a fixture in his life, so that sources of art, entertainment and information would last the rest of his life. And in principle, I disliked that we were just tourists, coming to take a brief peek in at the room and leave. That's not what the building was made for.

We went to the wonderful New England Aquarium in Boston. It had so many interesting types of fish, and a special exhibit with the most gorgeous jellyfish, but the highlight was the big penguin tank in the center. There were some aquarium workers in the tank with the penguins, feeding them as they all got in line patiently and waited their turns. They knew all the names, how well which penguins got along, etc. All we knew was "Ooh! Penguins! How cute!". I got the distinct impression that we weren't getting the full experience here. The rest of the building was so big and filled that there was no way I could internalize all I was seeing. I ignored the science and just took in how pretty it all was, because I'm not a marine biologist who'd care about such things. Now, I can take quite a lot of prettiness, but at a certain point it just becomes overkill if you take it all in at once. I wondered what it would be like to see all that on a regular basis. I could imagine a fantasy world where everyone had penguins outside their door, and treated them the same as we treat cats. Or even in the real world, there must be someplace (Antarctica, maybe?) where that could happen. Now that would be cool. Them all bottled up in this big building where only a handful of people will see them regularly? That's not what animals were made for.

While we were there, we went to the on-site IMAX theater to see Sharks 3D. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was right up my alley- not a science-heavy documentary (as I'd expected) but just a succession of pretty pictures. Lovely. It makes you feel like you're one of these creatures who lives in the ocean, looking around at all the gorgeous things swimming around, of which sharks were only one of many species displayed. Now, nothing can really replicate the life of an underwater creature because they're permanently living in all this, but it gave us the next best thing by spending a lot of time on each animal. I can see how that might bore some people, but for me it was wonderful. Not least because this was an IMAX theater, not some tiny little Israeli theater. The special thing about IMAX isn't just that it's 3D- it's that the screen is enormous. I imagined a fantasy world in which I could watch every movie like that. Leaving the theater, I mentioned to Benjy that it would be so cool to be able to just go to an IMAX theater and watch, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey in 3D! That's what this sort of theater was made for!


Anyway, all this got me to thinking. If you take a large dose of some light entertainment once, you'll mildly enjoy it for the most part and possibly get a little dissatisfied. Why dissatisfied? Because it's overkill to have too much of a very subtle enjoyment all at once. But if you spread it out, taking small doses on a regular basis, it can enrich your life. For instance: A Sudoku puzzle is not exactly the most fun thing in the world. Spend an hour or two on such puzzles, and you'll be so bored you'll never want to do another such puzzle again. But if every morning you open the newspaper and do the Sudoku puzzle of the day, it can sharpen the mind. Same goes for crosswords, Kakuro, and all those handheld puzzle videogames of the kind (such as Polarium and Brain Age). And imagine how boring it would be to play Animal Crossing, a banal string of errands and smalltalk on the Gamecube, for hours at a time! But if you can integrate it into your life, working your real-life schedule around when events will be taking place in Animal Crossing, it's tremendous fun! And listening to a concert is the best way to appreciate music, but listening to the radio regularly has more of a positive effect on your life. I'm sure you can think of many more examples of your own.

There is a problem with aiming for such experiences- the whole time issue. If something takes a little bit of time every day, that's less time that you have for more sophisticated one-time experiences. Which means not only that each day is going to be fairly similar to the others (which is true of any sort of schedules), but that from a business perspective, there's less of a market for new things. Which is a problem for me as a person who would always like to see more diversity in art. Take online role-playing games, arguably the building blocks of future civilizations: They are so involving that the players not only neglect other games (The PC game market has been much smaller ever since World of Warcraft was released), but sometimes neglect the rest of their real-world lives! In order for such a game to be made responsibly, the gamists need to do more than just ensure the endless potential for growth. They need to design the game for short play sessions, which can be fit into standard schedules and not only the schedules of the obsessed.

But I admit all this reluctantly. Because I would like to imagine a fantasy world where everyone who wishes can and does read any book they ever want! Where anyone can walk right outside their doors and watch penguins in the cold. Where there is never a lack of pretty things to look at. Where any movie can be watched, at any time, in 3D on the finest IMAX screen. Where I can stay at Grandpa and Grandma's house, and where I can spend as much time as I want in a great art museum.


Exploration and Discovery

Exploration and Discovery

When I was a kid, every place I came to was an experience waiting to be had. And I'm not saying that an experience could be had in it- the place was the experience.

Take our old shul in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. There was this very little room with lots of coats hanging in it, and we used to play hide-and-seek around there. Now, an adult looking at this situation might say that I was hiding in the coat closet because we were playing hide-and-seek, but he'd have it backwards- I was playing hide-and-seek so that I'd get to hide in the coat closet. And when I ran in the hallways, I wasn't just using the hallways for running. I was enjoying that hallway! See, hallways are long, so they're best appreciated by running. Kids are connoisseurs for such things.

The hallway -which, along with the coat closet, was on the bottom floor- looped around a big room, with little rooms all around the edge. The big room was a place I only went in on Yom Kippur for davening. (At other times, that boring activity took place upstairs.) The rest of the year, I didn't go in there, which give it a bit of mystique. The little rooms I darted in and out of, which satisfyingly gave the impression of their tangential nature.

But there comes a certain time in a person's life when a room becomes just a room, when a hallway is only notable for leading you to where you're going, where a closet is no longer a place to hide but only a place to hang coats. And I am ashamed to say that I've passed that point.

That is what I learned on the second Shabbat, when we went back to the shul of my childhood. It was not, as the cliché goes, "smaller than I remembered". In fact, the rooms were exactly as I remembered them. But they were just rooms. I was on the other side of that big room now, the side which now hosts a second minyan. It was a room to daven in, nothing more. There was nothing left to discover except that the room wasn't any prettier than it absolutely had to be. The building had shrunk metaphorically; it had lost its magic.

This deterioration of spirit can't be helped, because it is tied to other socially assigned responsibilities. It is a social necessity to eventually see past what something is to what it is for - the rules of each and every social setting must be understood and obeyed. It is a social obligation to abandon abstraction in favor of practicality. It would be childish to see inherent value in architecture, or in streets and forests and the rest of the world for that matter. Focusing on them is a waste of time. A good adult should concern himself only with the question: "How efficiently does this serve my goals?"

Still, the change has left a big hole in my life. I fill that hole with exploration-driven games- namely, Metroid Prime and Myst. They provide me with worlds detached from social context, in which it is perfectly acceptable to walk around beautiful areas without having anything specific to do in them. Metroid Prime's world of Tallon IV is exquisitely designed, and offers platforming with which I can appreciate the world design. Because if there is a small platform, and a larger platform next to it, the proper way to appreciate that design is by jumping from one to the next, no? We gamers are connoisseurs for such things.

Unfortunately, a few remnants of the Real World find their way into both series. They would have to. If you think about it, there's something odd about a game serving the practical goal of an escape from practicality. And skipping past the cute little paradox of it all, the real problem in practice is who would want such a game? A kid won't need to look for a socially-accepted outlet for socially-unacceptable indulgence, because he wouldn't care about what's socially acceptable. (And how I envy him!) But an adult will have trained himself not to care about self-indulgence! The only people who would want such a game are those who understand practicality but don't want to live by it, those who indulge in art but need to fit into society regardless. In other words, people like me. But people like me are not numerous enough to pay for a game's development.

So compromises are made. Metroid includes a lot of action, and Myst includes a lot of puzzles. I can handle that. Action and puzzles aren't bad. And they are marketed promoting these as their selling points, along with stories which justify the exploration. That way, they can be sold to people who will have no appreciation for the exploration, who will play the games only so that they can beat them. These games are not made for them, but they would not be made without them.

All three subordinate game elements can be a bit of a nuisance at times, but I put up with them because I love to explore. I love the magic of the unknown, and how those foreign and wondrous lands can be integrated into my world-view with just a little repetition and backtracking. After a few times passing through a certain area of Tallon IV, I get to know it so well I don't need a map anymore. It becomes as real to me as any place I've ever been to in the Real World, and more real than most, because this place I've been allowed to experience.

There are very few places in the Real World I've had the privilege to get to know so well. For that matter, there are very few places I'd want to get to know, thanks to society's obsession with practicality. Most places are exactly the same, most places are boring. But I'm always looking for a place that can be different, a place that can not only be an experience in itself, but a good one. And when I find such an opportunity, I make the most of it. I once had a "Metroid moment" in Eilat, exploring by myself (on foot, of course) to find the pizza place. That was very satisfying. And possibly my fondest memories of the seventh grade -indeed, some of the fondest memories of my life- were exploring the big campus of Kiryat No'ar with Tuvia, filled with diverse and interestingly-placed buildings. And you'd better believe we experienced those buildings from every angle. We climbed roofs, scaled walls, hid in giant bushes, you name it.

Some of my family members, seeing me in areas I've been to a few times, think I have an excellent sense of direction. They're wrong. I have a terrible sense of direction. But when I find a good area, I leap at the opportunity to explore it, and so when I return to that area, it's almost like I'm coming home. Discovering an area isn't just short-term entertainment. It gives you a sense of ownership over that area, a sense that can last a good long time. Not literal ownership, mind you- I'm referring to how it implants itself in your memory so well that you could find your way through it in your sleep. It's satisfying in a way that you can't really understand unless you've done a fair amount of exploring yourself.

Why can't such experiences be more common in the Real World? I blame it on whatever idiot decided that cars, rather than people, deserved 80% of the road. The moron who dictated that these ugly, stinky metal machines were more entitled to inherit the world than humans. Cars don't explore. Cars efficiently move from point A to point B. That's a chore, not a process of discovery. The awkwardness and rigidness of their mechanical movement makes it impossible to appreciate the nuances of the world around you. On top of that, all the rules of driving distract you further, making it such a practical mishmash of little details to pay attention to that you're barely allowed to see where you are. And you're never alone on the road. Exploring is a personal experience, but you're never able to go in your own direction. There are cars in front of you, and cars in back of you, and cars to your side. So what should be a single-player experience is completely buried under the weight of this massively-multiplayer environment.

And the 20% of the road that's left? That stinks too. The sidewalk is just about the most simplistic piece of world design I can imagine. And it's all over the place. I would have no problem with a sidewalk placed here and there. There's nothing specifically wrong with them, since there's nothing to them. But a world with so many of these straight and boring stretches that its identity is defined by them? That's a pretty pathetic little world. Then add in the smell and noise of the cars, and maybe a dog doo every so often, just to make the picture complete.
Where are the cliffs to climb?
Where are the moving platforms?
Where are the tiny tunnels?
Where are the dangerous shortcuts?
Where are the gates dividing areas?
Where are the multi-level underground mazes?
Where are the above-ground skyways?
Where are the rooftop passageways?
Where are the colors?
Where are the sounds
And the sights
And the smells
And the whole experience?

Without diversity in world design, there's nothing to discover. And without the promise of discovery, there's no opportunity to explore.

It may be too late to save the streets, but thankfully there are still houses to fall back on. It is socially acceptable, though not socially agreeable, to have an interesting house. After all, if it's your house, you can do whatever you want with it. You can put the main entrance on the roof, or make the half-built attic into a bedroom, or face a couch to a window so you can watch the rain comfortably.

On the other hand, a house doesn't need to be unique to be good. For instance, my grandparents' house is perfectly socially acceptable, and yet it still excites me to be in it. One reason is that there's just a lot to discover in it. My father and his brothers lived in that house once, and all their old things are there waiting to be found. As such, the whole house is partially a way to escape into another time, with working 8-Track players and a Mattel Intellivision. I think there's even an Apple II lying around somewhere. And even better than all that is the box, sitting somewhere in the house, of my father's old Mad Magazine collection. These are issues from back in the 60's, back when the magazine was hysterically funny.

It might seem odd that I'd associate the house with these little gems, but every world designer knows that the easiest recipe for exploratory magic is a good treasure hunt. The promise that you might always find a new treasure around the corner -be it one of Metroid's power-ups, Myst's book pages or Eilat's pizza- raises the entire experience to a new level. And I must emphasize that actually getting that treasure is not the essence here- the promise is. I never found the box of Mad treasures, but it enhanced my time there to know that it was there for the taking.

Even beyond all that, though, it's a great house. Some of the rooms have truly striking appearances, and even the smell of each room is distinctive. When I said that I wished I could stay in that house, someone said I'd get bored of it quickly. But that person was an adult, and he was wrong.

When I was a kid, every house and every street seemed like an experience waiting to be had. Now that I'm older, the world has gotten a lot less magical. But every now and then, I'm reminded that there are still worlds worth discovering.

Socializing? Bleh!

Socializing? Bleh!

We came to Detroit for my cousins' bar mitzvah. That meant sitting through speeches and food and most of all, having to see extended family. I'm talking about people who I didn't even recognize, whose names I'd never remember and whose place on the family tree was hard to keep track of. "They're just family.", I thought, "What do I have to do with them?" Bar mitzvahs also mean standing through crowds. I really don't like crowds. I'd sit at the side, out of the way, in my little frog-sit that I do partly because everyone says it's so weird. And I'd wait.

On Shabbat, it happened to be raining. I love the rain. It's so peaceful and consistent and familiar. I stood outside of the shul in the rain to get away from the crowd inside. It was calm and peaceful. Everyone else came in raincoats, but I didn't. It seemed a bit backwards to come into the rain in the sort of outfit that would actively prevent you from appreciating it. It was only a very light rain, anyway, so it's not like I'd have to explain away being drenched. I could still hear the noise from inside, but it was good to be outside nonetheless. Or maybe that's backwards- maybe it was better for the noise inside. Whatever the reason, I liked it.

My father thought that was wrong. It seemed backwards to him that I'd come into a social setting with the sort of attitude that would actively prevent me from appreciating it. He was on the other side of that front door. And he pushed me (quite literally) in the way of the family members because I was acting too weird. I waited for him to walk away again, and escaped again. Would these people be talking about videogames, or comic books, or anything else that I might find interesting? Of course not- they'd all just ask that one same question. The question to which I had no satisfying answer, but which was the only question they'd find appropriate for a family member my age.

Basically, these were people who I'd never expect to see again in my life, because I'd never remember they existed. I'm not sure I'd want to remember they existed.

At one point, I tried hanging around Benjy. If I stand by someone else who is socializing, I can be close enough to seeming like a participant in that conversation so as to not have to socialize myself. People leave you alone if they see you standing by another conversation, whether or not you are really a part of that conversation. It's a nice little loophole in the social rules which I use whenever possible. The only downside is that it tends to irritate the person you're following. But if that person is a close family member or friend, then that's acceptable.

Anyway, I tried hanging around Benjy. He loves to talk about politics. I tried actually joining the conversation at one point, and made myself look like a complete fool. I don't have a brain capable of processing politics. There are all those little trivial details, and you're supposed to treat each one like it's the key to the whole issue. I don't see details, I see concepts. At one point the discussion looked like it related to a concept I was familiar with, so I brought that concept in. They said that had absolutely nothing to do with what they were talking about. I kept my mouth shut after that.

(Benjy sees me as a bit of a fool, I think. On a different occasion, I tried to understand the political discussion he was having with my parents, and he got increasingly frustrated when -my best efforts notwithstanding- I wasn't making any sense of the issues.)

In fact, keeping my mouth shut seems to be the best way to go in almost any social setting. I can't relate to what people like that say, and they couldn't relate to what I'd say, so it would always end in embarrassment. I kept my mouth shut at the bar mitzvah dinner, when the people at my table -all family members, roughly the same age as me- talked about all sorts of things I couldn't relate to. I waited for some hint of an opening I could crawl in to the conversation through. There wasn't one.

I waited for so long that I wasn't waiting for anything in particular anymore- just waiting. I kept waiting at the table later when everyone else got up to join in on conversations at other tables. And then some extended family member came over and introduced me to Ronnie, a kid related to me only in some roundabout way I didn't quite grasp. And Ronnie and I, we just started talking. And didn't stop, really. We were talking about videogames, mostly- the games he liked, the huge mistakes game developers tend to make, the future game systems, that sort of thing. Each little drop of a point adding to the others to make a satisfying light rain.

I knew I'd probably never see him again in my life, and he'd probably forget I existed. But I liked the conversation.

Back at our cousins' house, the adults engaged in lifeless smalltalk about nothing interesting. They listened to speeches and hung around with their extended family out of some sort of, I don't know, social obligation or something. Or maybe they really were enjoying it. Beats me. But downstairs were Uncle Perry's kids. I hadn't actually seen Uncle Perry in around eight years or so. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that he seemed like a really nice guy. But his kids- wow. His kids are so young and full of energy that it was fun just to be in the same room as them! They weren't talking so much as fooling around and jumping up and down and generally acting like kids. It was refreshing to see this other side of the family, to be reminded that that side even existed.

Or maybe it was just envy.
They didn't have to focus their socialization into these restrictive systems and acceptable environments. They didn't have to stand around with people they couldn't relate to.

Well, neither did I. I could sit in my little frog-sit over by the side.

Marcus thought I needed to be "fixed". That's Marcus, my longtime friend from New Jersey, with whom I spent most of the second Shabbat. It was nice to spend some time with him. But he thought there was something wrong with a person who stays away from other people. "What do you do when you go out with the guys?", he asked. "Um, what guys?", I dodged, enjoying this new opportunity to take the role of "weird creature". "Your guys! Oh, don't tell me you don't have guys! Everyone needs guys.". And as much as I enjoyed the attention, he wasn't wrong.

But really, what guys? Adults, who'd keep annoying me with that same question and never talk about anything interesting? Kids, who aren't capable of processing social rules? No, I'm pretty much limited to people like me, who are interested in concepts but not details, or people like Marcus, who are so into their own interests and full of energy that it can be fun (if tiring) to just be in the same room with them. But people like us, we're not numerous enough for a guy like me to be part of a group.

Every now and then, I get an opening into some group I'll never get to see again. I guess I should be thankful.

"So what are you doing next year?"

"So what are you doing next year?"

Adults are boring.

Any time I saw one, they'd ask me the same question. Couldn't anyone think of anything more interesting to ask? All they wanted to hear were plans for the future. They see people like stocks- if they're not making money now, their value depends on whether they'll make money in the future.

I'd always say that I planned to do "not much". I like that reply because it's the truth. Also, it doesn't put me in a situation where I'll have promised to do something. I can almost never get myself to follow through on those promises.

(All answers are replies, but not all replies are answers.)

That didn't satisfy them. They wanted to get me to go to a college, so I could get a job later on. They wanted me to stop fooling around and jumping up and down and start something.

So they'd wait around, hoping to see how they could someday get a return (in small quantities of pride) on their blood connection to me. (Family isn't as fair as the stock market, because you don't get to choose who to invest in.)

They'd find me later by the piano, and saw what they wanted to see. An adult would come over and say to me: "Do you know what your music reminds me of?" And I'd smile, because this was roughly the thirtieth person to go through this script since the beginning of the trip. And then, as expected, they'd name some famous contemporary pianist/composer I'd never heard of. (I know roughly zero about contemporary pianists.) I think it's supposed to be a compliment: If he got to be big and famous and make lots of money, then I could too!

The more people made comments like this, the funnier the whole routine got. Because no two people referred to the same composer! Apparently my music sounds like everyone else out there. And it's no compliment to think that I have nothing original to offer. But I'd laugh, because I just didn't care. I was playing for two reasons, and two reasons only:
  1. To show off, thereby getting attention.
  2. To entertain myself.
That was all.

"Nonsense", thought the adults. "This could be marketed and sold! I'd buy his CD, wouldn't you buy his CD?"

Some were even more direct. My Uncle Johnny, after hearing me do my best with a primitive keyboard in my aunt's basement, said I should send him an audio file with music and he'd bring it to a professional to make into a CD.

Don't get me wrong- I couldn't relate to these people, but I was not opposed to their interest. I like getting attention.

Still, I explained to my uncle that this was not a career choice for me. I was only playing because it was fun to play, not because I had anything to offer with my music. This was not something I'd ever seriously consider doing with my life.

"So what would you want to do with your life?"

Should I actually answer that question?, I asked myself. That would expose my lack of progress. How long has it been since I started that design? And still I have nothing to show for it. It would expose my lack of self-motivation. How rare is it that I actually finish something big that I start, rather than just ignoring it and hoping it'll go away?

But what the heck.

I told him I wanted to make videogames. And yes, I had something to offer there: a more progressive perspective. I explained that when I look around at the big videogame developers of today, I see that they don't have any idea what they're doing. They don't even understand what a videogame is, so how can they be expected to understand that they need to look at a platformer differently than they look at an action game, and more along the lines of dance?

I decided the platformer was a good example for everything that was wrong with modern gamists. Platformers lost their appeal as an independent art form when they focused too much on the story, or the worlds to explore, or the mini-games. The primary content of a platformer is its controls, and gamists don't even understand that most basic point. Wait right there, I said, and I got out my Game Boy and copy of Super Mario Bros. to illustrate. I gave it to him to play for ten seconds, to show him that these controls had personality, and would be fun to play even if there were nothing to do with them. And then I told him my idea, Through the Wind. (Or at least a small bit of it, since I've planned out quite a lot of it.)

The point being, I do have something to offer for videogames.

In Boston, we happened to be riding the "T" with our grandparents (on my mother's side), and my grandfather posed a challenge. He said that my little cousin is having trouble reading. He wondered if there could be a game which served the practical goal of teaching a young child to read. I instantly thought of all the ways that kind of game has been done wrong: each failed attempt grafting practical learning onto unrelated types of games. The game would need to embrace the concept of teaching letters. I asked for a minute to consider the problem.

And then I gave my solution. The game comes with a special controller, with only five (fairly large) buttons arranged in a circle. Each button has on its face one of the five vowels, in a different bright color. The goal (on the developer's side) of the game is less ambitious than teaching to read anything, but just to teach about the vowel sounds. On the screen is an abstract but constantly moving and changing animation. (The picture in my mind was along the lines of Electric Sheep, but it could certainly be a more relatable animation involving anthropomorphic characters.) That animation is in grayscale to begin with. Then a vowel appears on screen, accompanied by its sound. If the player presses the right button, the moving picture on the screen gets a little bit more colorful, by adding a little bit of that vowel's color from the controller. (That is a reward even a very young kid could appreciate.) Then, once the player has gotten the hang of it, the letters stop appearing though the sounds continue. If the player presses the right button, the screen gets more colorful. If he presses the wrong button, the screen gets grayer. Once the player gets the hang of that, the sounds are complete one-syllable words, and the button must be pressed which corresponds with the vowel in that word. Then (on a harder level) the other sounds that a vowel can make are added in, and then words for those sounds. With each level, the animation is more interesting than the previous level. Eventually, the player will know intuitively what sounds each vowel makes. That seems like a pretty huge first step.

The point being, I actually could apply my views to Real-World situations. They're not just abstract musings.

But will I ever apply myself, or will I just ignore the future as usual? Will I ever get the self-motivation to complete a big project?

I've promised too much on this blog already, promises I didn't keep. I've even promised on this blog that I'd keep the promises I make on this blog, and I didn't keep that either.

So I'm not going to make any promises. But I'll try.



We were standing around in our grandparents' basement when our father called us all into the study to see something. He'd found some trays of slides he'd taken a long time ago. They were mostly photos of him with all his old friends on trips to Israel. He smiled like he'd just discovered a buried treasure. We all sat around the room -me, Benjy, Miriam, Dena and our mother- and looked at the pictures (in which he looked strikingly like Benjy) as he gave an explanation of each one.


I was sitting by myself at a table near the entrance of the Hampton Inn, happily eating breakfast. And what a breakfast it was! From the large selection of food on the tables, I'd taken a tiny container of Philadelphia cream cheese to put on a bagel I'd toasted, and a cup of tea, and a packet of Quaker instant oatmeal (Maple and Brown Sugar flavor). Normally I don't have breakfast. But why should I turn down such a feast? Soon I would catch up with my family, less concerned with enjoying themselves than with rushing to get out and on the road as quickly as possible. But for the moment, I ate my bagel and my oatmeal and drank my tea, and savored every bit of it with a smile.


Benjy was showing us the Boston University building where he has classes. We sat on the floor, while he stood above us, leaning on the wall casually with a superior grin on his face. He was apparently enjoying that here he owned the place relative to us, though he wanted to be seen only as mildly bored. Not literal ownership, of course- just a sense that he knew this place like the back of his hand while we were only visitors. Miriam and Dena sat by him, while I frog-sat farther back by a wall, just a little bit further into the hallway. And I thought to myself, what a wonderful photo this would make, with me in the bottom left of the frame and Benjy around the top middle. What a perfect angle. And once again I wished I had a camera. But I didn't have one, and the moment passed.


"You know what you need on your motorcycle?", I said to Benjy as we walked, "More little doohickeys.". It didn't seem right to me that a guy like Benjy, who likes to pay attention to twenty little details at once, would own such a simple vehicle as opposed to, say, an airplane. "What would these 'doohickeys' do?", he said. "How should I know? I don't have the mind for this sort of thing, you do. You should have so many little digital doohickeys that there's barely room for your hands." And as we went on down the street, he was probably wishing he could be having a conversation with someone else.


We'd been sitting in the car for hours. My father was driving through unremarkable roads. My mother was talking to him about something or other; I couldn't really tell what they were saying from the back. Dena was sitting by the window, doing nothing in particular. Miriam was listening to music on her little player. Benjy was working on his laptop, connected to the internet at almost all times. I was in the back, on his other laptop, reading comics I'd brought with me on a CD. We all kept waiting.


We were pulled over on the sidewalk with our grandparents (on my mother's side) and their car. My father was by the bottom of the car, helping out in some way. My grandfather was standing by him very straight, surveying the flat tire resentfully. My mother and her mother were arguing. Benjy stood on the left, talking on his cell phone to someone. Miriam and Dena stood around our mother looking serious, to fit in with the tone around them. I sat in the back out of the scene, with my little frog-sit, wishing I had a camera to take this most wonderful of family portraits. But I had no camera, and to ask a family member for a camera would (even assuming they broke out of the scene enough to grant my request) move them from their perfect positions. For that matter, I wasn't fond of leaving my perfect position in the picture either. And how could a camera capture that entire scene with me in it, anyway? Soon they'd work out the problem, and my grandmother would demand a traditional and wholly artificial family portrait- the kind which is all most people would think of. But for the moment, I looked at the pretty picture glad to be there in the first place.


It was late, and all four of us kids were downstairs playing. Our grandparents' basement has a huge room with a pool table and a Nintendo 64 and a piano and two arcadey game machines which don't work and lots of closets with weird stuff in them. It's a cool room. We had a Ping Pong table out, so two of us were playing on that. And the other two were playing pool. And we went back and forth between the two games, and we'd watch each other's games. I'd never seen our family before as anything but an odd assortment of mismatched parts, but in this multiplayer environment it all just clicked. I wished we could stay in that room. I'd wanted to find an environment like that for so long. And just a few days later I'd buy the multiplayer game Pac-Man Vs. to try to recapture that, to some insignificant degree, at home. I didn't realize back in that basement that any such attempt would prove futile, that when this moment passed, it would pass for good. But then, I didn't know I'd ever get to have a moment like that, and yet here it was. Tomorrow we'd continue the trip down a long list of places to go to. But for the moment.. I was glad to be there.


I planned out most of this "block" of posts as I was in America experiencing all that I have just written down. I expected to have to write "around ten posts", but I don't think I really internalized what I was asking of myself. It certainly never occurred to me that I would still be working on it so many months later, and if it had I don't know if I would have gone through with it. And that's for the best, I think. Now that I am through with it, at long last, I'm very proud of what I've accomplished here. On the trip I wrote down some (very few, really) simple notes to remind myself of what to write, and I consulted these notes from the start (Even in the Introduction you can see how I'm trying to set all the pieces up.) to the end. And even in the end, I think it stayed pretty true to my original idea.

The point being, I have too wild an imagination, and it leads me through life like a wild horse trying to kick me off. I hope you've enjoyed some of this story.



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