personal

Karaoke and Crazy-Pants

So last night my friend S. and I went out to do some karaoke.  For those unfamiliar with karaoke, it’s when you go out and fool yourself into thinking you’re a better singer than you actually are because the acoustics in your shower is a liar.  So S. and I went, did a little singing and while he did a good job and chose songs that were actually in his register, I went for songs that I thought would get the crowd pumped.

Valuable karaoke lesson: Crowd only gets pumped if A) they’re pumped before you even get on stage; or B) You’re a good enough to get them pumped through your awesome vocals.  While I did a good job with “With a Little Help from My Friends”, the bar was basically empty when I sang it.  When it was filled with people, I chose to go with Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” (someone should’ve stopped me before) and Europe’s “The Final Countdown” (folks counted down to when I would stop butchering the song).

In all honesty, I had fun singing even if I did a poor job.  I don’t mind making a fool of myself as long as I’m having fun doing it.  You can’t do karaoke or really any kind of public performance if you’re too scared of being embarrassed.  However, after “The Final Countdown”, I was feeling pretty beat and decided after S. did one more song, we would leave.  Then a self-proclaimed social butterfly by the name of Lana* flitted over to our table.  Lana had been at the bar almost as early as we had and she had done a pretty good job singing.  She decided to come over to our table and talk to us for no particular reason, but I’m so glad she did because she made the night far more entertaining.

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Saturday, February 5th, 2011 humor, personal No Comments

Football Fanatic

Professional sports are a funny thing.  We somehow become personally invested in a game played by millionaires where the outcome probably won’t affect our lives in any meaningful way.  It’s not like art where it can broaden our minds and change our outlook on the world or propose new ideas.  It’s entertainment, but entertainment that appeals to our baser instincts of competitiveness and adoration of physical triumph.  And there’s nothing wrong with that as I had fun this past year when I became invested in the world of football.

A good friend of mine suggested that a way to become more interested in football was to join a fantasy league.  I did and suddenly I cared about players who weren’t on my team.  But as much as I was watching how Frank Gore or Hines Ward would perform on a week-to-week basis, I became incredibly interested in the Atlanta Falcons.

My interest in the Falcons originally began in 2008.  After Michael Vick’s arrest and the coach quitting in the most dickish manner possible, it felt like the team had reached such a low that there was now a clean slate.  It didn’t matter that I couldn’t name all the players or recite the team’s history.  The team had a new coach, a new quarterback, and a fresh start.  And they played an impressive season and made it to the playoffs.  The next year, they fought through injuries and came away with a triumph of back-to-back winning seasons.  And then this year, things really started to click into place.

What made the Falcons fun to watch was that they didn’t blow out their opponents.  They kept you on the edge of your seat for the full sixty minutes.  They weren’t a flashy team, but they had a consistent strategy of conducting long drives and eating tons of play clock.  The national media wasn’t paying attention, but I didn’t care, because my team was winning and winning in ways that kept me captivated.  Furthermore, the team had versatility.  While Matt Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzales were the stars, other players like Michael Jenkins, Eric Weems, and Brent Grimes were playmakers at key moments.  I found myself counting down the days until Sunday when I could see my team play again.  I was leaving the NFL Network on in the background as I worked.  I listened to an obscene amount of Sports Talk radio.

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I was dismayed that the Falcons were being disrespected by the national media in their playoff match-up with the Packers.  I felt that this team had done some incredible work this past season and it was unfair to be treated as underdogs when they had the #1 seed, a bye week, and were playing at home.  But after tonight’s dismal game, the Falcons are going to have to earn the nation’s respect all over again.  I didn’t think the Falcons were going to waltz to a win, but I thought it would at least be close.  But when Matt Ryan threw a pick-six in the closing minute of the first half, it seemed to suck all the life out of the team.  Even though we were only down by two touchdowns, that deficit somehow seemed insurmountable, and the team that came onto the field in the second half seemed to have already given up.  We were trounced and what’s worse, we were trounced on a national stage.  Next year, the Falcons still won’t get any respect and it’s because of this game.  They’ll have to earn it all again and while I may be disheartened, I imagine what I feel is but a fraction of the emotions felt by die-hard fans and members of the Falcons’ organization.

It was a shitty end to a great season, but it was a great season.  Anyone who says that tonight’s loss makes the season a disappointment is re-writing history.  Tonight’s outcome doesn’t take away how much fun I had watching the Falcons this season and becoming more interested in football.  I still can’t identify different plays beyond broad definitions like “blitz”, “pass”, “run”, etc. and I usually have to wait for an official to announce a penalty rather than being able to spot it myself before the flag is thrown.  But football, and most sports, appeal to my competitive nature and it would be disingenuous of me to pretend like this year didn’t matter simply because we sucked in our first-round playoff game.

Sure, it would be nice if my initiation into the world of football fandom was greeted with my team winning the Super Bowl.  But that’s not really what being a fan is about.   Being a fan means you have to suffer with your team and while everyone likes the ecstasy of victory, there’s only one team that gets crowned champion, and everyone else has to deal with the agony of defeat.  The Falcons shouldn’t be ashamed of their season because of tonight’s performance.  I know I’m not.

Sunday, January 16th, 2011 personal, sports No Comments

Better Comments: Maddow and Stewart

Usually, I post Keith Olbermann’s latest Special Comment, but his response to the Arizona shooting lacks basis in facts.  No one has any proof that Jared Lee Loughner was motivated by the violent rhetoric of the right wing and Tea Party.  It would be nice if we could simply connect A to B and then a madman like Loughner could be neutralized before a tragedy like this occurs again.  But as Rachel Maddow pointed out in her opening segment, we should be horrified by events like these, but not surprised.  Our country can’t seem to go longer than a few years with out some maniac going on a killing spree.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

I’m in strong agreement with Jon Stewart as he attempted to explain his feelings about the shooting and how looking for a line of causation would be nice, but right now we’re just attempting to manufacture one so that we won’t feel as helpless as we do right now.


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Tuesday, January 11th, 2011 personal No Comments

The Giffords Shooting

It’s tempting to level opinions and start placing blame in a moment like this.  We must withhold from doing so at this time.  We’re in the middle of chaos when facts are scarce and rumors are everywhere.  U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) has been shot and she’s in surgery.  The shooter has been taken into custody.  That’s all we know.

I’m looking on Twitter and a lot of the blame is being thrown at SarahPAC and the Tea Party.  I want to blame them, but I don’t know if they’re responsible.  I want to say that when you use violent rhetoric and make a map of targets with cross hairs, something like this can happen.  Except, I don’t know if that’s why the shooter shot at Giffords and others who were attending her event today.  Maybe the demons in his head told him to do that.  Maybe he believed he was doing God’s work.  I don’t know his motive.  I don’t even know his name.

In times of fear and chaos, we immediately want things to start making sense again.  We want to know why this terrible thing happened because we’re helpless in the face of senseless tragedy, as if a tragedy that made sense would be any better.

My thoughts and prayers are with the congresswoman, other injured or killed at the event, and their friends and family.  That’s all I can do right now.  I can’t make sense of what happened and as much as I would like to blame those I believe responsible, I have no evidence to back it up.

[Update (12:39am)] The Pima County Sheriff’s Office has released the names of those killed in today’s attack:

-John Roll, 63, a federal district court judge.

-Gabriel Zimmerman, 30, Giffords’ director of community outreach

-Dorwin Stoddard, 76, a pastor at Mountain Ave. Church of Christ.

-Christina Greene, 9, a student at Mesa Verde Elementary

-Dorthy Murray, 76

-Phyllis Scheck, 79

My thoughts and prayers goes out to their loved ones.  I’ve tried not to think about this all day because doing so just makes me sad and angry and I have nowhere to direct it.

Saturday, January 8th, 2011 personal No Comments

5 Important Things I Learned Tonight at the Conan Show

1.  If you’re planning to take a lot of pictures with your digital camera, make sure the fucking camera battery is charged.

2. If you’re going to shell out cash for a live show, do it up right, and don’t cheap out for a seat that’s so far to the side that you’re cheating yourself out of a better show.  Also, go for the inside aisle seat.

3. I can’t understand people who leave a few minutes before the show is over because they’re trying to beat the traffic.  They want to pay the premium ticket price for a live show because they love the person they’re going to see, but not as much as they love to beat the traffic.

4. I kind of already knew this, but the Fox Theatre has the worst fucking acoustics.  I don’t give a shit if it is an Atlanta landmark.  If you’re a place that gives live performances, and large percentage of what you hear sounds muffled, then you’re a shitty theatre.

5. Don’t go to a show by yourself.  If you can’t find someone when you’re about to buy a ticket, just buy two, and figure out the friend thing later.  Worse comes to worst, you can sell it on Craigslist.

I had a good time tonight, but I would have a had a better time had I known these lessons beforehand.

Monday, June 14th, 2010 personal, stupid No Comments

Lucky

Yesterday was my birthday and my Facebook wall filled with “Happy Birthday” wishes from friends.  I know it takes less than a minute to write “Happy Birthday” on someone’s Facebook wall, but it still made me feel good that there are people in this world who like me enough to do that.  I don’t need or want hundreds and hundreds of Facebook friends.  It’s why I don’t include my Facebook page in my e-mail signature, on my website, on Collider, or my business card.  Facebook is for folks I think are good people.

Also, this isn’t to diss people who didn’t wish me a happy birthday or to say that those who did were better than those who didn’t.  Don’t take it that way at all.  This is just a reflection on how lucky I feel that there are people in my life who think I’m pretty alright.  I still get a thrill any time someone tells me they read my movie reviews.  It’s not that I think I’m unpopular or anything like that.  It’s just nice to know there are people who care.

Okay, that’s enough sappiness for one year.  I’ll now return to my regularly scheduled detached irony.

Monday, May 31st, 2010 personal No Comments

Vote for Collider

Collider was nominated for Best News Blog by TotalFilm.com.  Here is the poll below.  I expect you to vote for Collider.  If you do not, then clearly you do not value our friendship and I will badmouth you to everyone and say that you smell funny.

Thursday, January 7th, 2010 brilliant, criticism, Internet, movies, personal No Comments

+1000 Culture Points

I forgot how to unplug.  I knew I was constantly in front of a screen and that I may need to get out and take a walk or read a book but my world still revolved around movies, TV, and videogames.  That’s fine because it’s my job but in an odd way it’s made me slightly myopic.  It’s not that I don’t find other things interesting, I just never think to get away to look at them.  Today I learned that was a bad idea and learned some valuable lessons as a result (this post will end with “The More You Know”).

Today, I went with my dad into the city of San Francisco and at first it was slightly depressing.  Walking through the downtown area the streets were littered with stores that you could find anywhere.  Macy’s, Brooks Brothers, California Pizza Kitchen, Quiznos–so what.  If I’m across the country in a city I haven’t visited since I was about ten*, then I want to go places that I can’t go in Atlanta.  I’m sure if my dad and I had more time, we could have better explored the city but we were close to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and I hoped that the special exhibits wouldn’t bore me to tears.

I don’t dislike paintings or photography or sculpture or anything you would commonly find in an art museum.  I just don’t know how to talk about it intelligently.  It’s like my understanding of music: I can’t really tell you what I like or dislike and that’s why I never make any recommendations**.  I don’t even find art intimidating as much as I find it confusing and since I don’t frequent art museums, I still think that I’ll feel the same as when I was a bored teenager trudging around the Atlanta High Museum of Art***.

But visiting the MoMA today in San Francisco I learned 3 very important lessons:

1) I actually do have preferences and insights into art.  I can briefly verbalize why I appreciate one work over another.  I know I lack the vocabulary to fully describe and analyze a particular piece but at least I’m slightly beyond “I like it ’cause it’s purdy.”

2) Georgia O’Keefe can find vaginas in just about anything, not just flowers and she could find other things in flowers than vaginas.  Today I saw waterfalls that looked like vaginas and flowers that looked like anuses.  Yes, they do let kids into the exhibits and yes, I still giggle like one at her paintings.  Two steps forward, one step back.

3) There are an astonishing number of attractive women at the art gallery.  Before, I had only perceived their high quantity in bars (too dark), clubs (too loud), and sporting events (too many barrel-chested boyfriends).  Single straight guys, heed my words: read an art book and suit up!

But beyond these superficial improvements, I found myself truly appreciating the art.  Yesterday, I didn’t know a damn thing about Richard Avedon and today I want prints of his photography.  Comprised entirely of portraits, I could spot the ones I liked (the ones that caught something from an unguarded moment or captured what felt like the truest photographic representation of a subject) and the ones I didn’t (the 0nes that felt staged or like the subject was actively posing, like Paul McCartney trying to figure out how to launch a solo career).

Oddly enough, after walking through the exhibit and seeing how Avedon was able to look at people, I started to look at them differently.  No, I don’t think I could pick up a camera and start snapping shots, but I just began noticing things I hadn’t before.  While my eye was drawn mostly the attractive blonde with the sidebangs and other physical features I enjoy****, I did notice one other woman.

From behind, she was dressed like anyone in their mid-20s, maybe even late teens.  She had long blonde hair, tight jeans, and what I assume was modern young fashion.  And then she turned around and she was clearly in her 40s.  Her body was outfitted like someone half her age but her face wasn’t Botox-ed or surgically adjusted.  My overwhelming instinct was pity.  Was she rebounding from a divorce?  Was she having a mid-life crisis?  Was her face the same because she didn’t want to hide her age or because the expense of physically altering it was too costly?   I enjoyed being able to just ask the questions rather than label her and push her aside.  What I learned from Avedon today was that it’s far more interesting to try and imagine someone from their features rather than writing them off at first glance.

After coming home, I took a brief rest (after freaking out about whether or not my rent check made it back to Atlanta before the due date) and then went to the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.  I dreaded the worst because specialized film festivals tend to be filled with any film the programmers can find as long as it fits the social group and so you’re basically rolling the dice with probably a 1-in-6 choice that you’ll actually enjoy the movie.

I saw a double feature tonight with my dad and his special-lady-friend (I’m not supposed to refer to her as his “girlfriend” even though they’ve been a couple for many years) and the first one confirmed by prejudice.  It was a film called “Heart of Stone” and it was like any school-official-changes-student lives but it at least had the benefit of being a documentary so you didn’t know if the student who may actually succeed will die at the end of the second act.

Still, it was a simplistic hagiography that lacked emotional honesty and pulled at heart-strings because most viewers can’t differentiate between the subject (a hard-working principal trying to save the lives of gang members through education) and the narrative which is highly simplistic and only tangentially mentions Jews before it goes back to telling us that these poor black students could get murdered at any time without actually showing us the consequences of gang violence or the purpose of gangs beyond the lure of friends and more opportunities than college.  Anything that may offer any complexity or larger scale like drug trafficking, racial profiling, and political indifference, are hardly mentioned if they’re even mentioned at all.

Of course, at the end, the crowd applauded because everyone loves a platitude.  The idea the film wants to convey is that folks should find some way to contribute this support to other struggling inner-city schools.  But since the film lacks depth, I imagine that most of the audience would forget about doing anything by the time they reached their cars.  Platitudes don’t change lives.  That’s what makes them platitudes.  After the film, there was a panel and everyone on the stage other than alumni and former NBA player Al Attles proceeded to verbally masturbate to their own accomplishments and the “power” of the movie.

So it’s a bad start and I don’t know if I’m going to have the energy for a second film.  It’s called “Lost Islands” and I can’t even remember what it’s about except maybe it’s some sort of family comedy or drama and neither sounds that appealing.

But the film was great.  It had a few minor flaws but it’s a thoughtful and emotionally honest story of a family cracking under the stress of guilt, shattered dreams, and forbidden love yet it easily jumps between humor and drama and neither feels phony or manipulative.  My dad saw it as a metaphor for Israel (where the film is set although it takes place in the 1980s) and his explanation holds up and the fact that he can make the explanation is just another reason why the film made my time at the festival tonight worthwhile.  Also, I can’t completely write off specialized film festivals (although I think they could do a much better job if they highlighted a jury’s preferred picks rather than just letting hapless viewers test their luck by cruising the program and judging their picks based on a one-paragraph synopsis.

It’s good to break the bubble.  I love what I do but I really need to get out more because I can actually broaden my horizons since I now know what my current horizon looks like.  Sadly, there weren’t as many cute ladies at the Jewish Film Festival but my current theory is that an art film festival is where all the attractive women will go.

THE MORE YOU KNOW

* When in California, I spend more time in the Oakland and Walnut Creek areas because that’s where my family is; I also tend to swing by Berkley now and then but try to avoid it do to lack of parking and an infestation of hippies.

** Other than The Beatles.  It is a fact that The Beatles are one of the best bands of all-time, if not the best.  To dispute it would be like disputing gravity.  Newton would have loved The Beatles.  You can just tell from his equations.

*** A place I only learned to appreciate because it doubled as the insane asylum housing Hannibal Lecter in “Manhunter”.

**** Breasts.

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009 personal No Comments

Time to Grow Up

It’s been said that to do the same action and expect a different result is insanity.  I would assume that doing different actions and expecting the same result is insanity, but I guess the doctors know best*.  I would like to say that my repeated action was acting unprofessionally as a film journalist, but unlike the insane, I was fully aware of what I was doing.

I’ve hemmed and hawed about it for a while now.  It all started at my very first junket and Dustin Hoffman was there.  Dustin Hoffman is my favorite actor of all-time in my favorite movie of all-time (“The Graduate”) and knowing he would be there meant I had to get his autograph on my DVD copy of the movie.  I would have thrown him in a sack and taken him back home with me but I assumed that such behavior was frowned upon at junkets.  Also, Dustin might have a few objections.

I got his autograph and a lot of other autographs from various actors, writers, and directors for a long time.  The DVDs decorate my desk and the posters decorate my walls.  I didn’t do it with every star and I didn’t do it with everything I owned.  I even tried to get my friends autographs since they could go without ever meeting the actors, filmmakers, or showrunners they respected and adored.  And what was the harm?  You let a person know you’re a fan, you do it as they’re on the way out the door, and you might keep him or her at the table for a few seconds longer for an extra question.  What was the harm?  How could it be unprofessional?  It was unprofessional not to!  I certainly would never stoop so low as someone from the International Press who tries to take photos with a celebrity or anyone who gets an autograph and then turns around to sell it on eBay.  I was above that.  I was a professional and anyone who disagreed was just trying to force their values on others.

This past week, I learned how wrong I was.  You see, working out of Atlanta provided a distance from the day-to-day film journalism of Los Angeles.  I wasn’t a part of their world so I didn’t have to abide by their rules.  They get to do junkets every day so on the rare occasion when I get to go, why shouldn’t I get a little something extra?  Something that matters to me as a fan.  A fan.  Not a professional.  Why couldn’t I be both?  Well, I could, but not at an interview.  Maybe at a screening where fans were invited up for autographs (like the saints of DERRICK comedy who ran out of ink trying to sign every fan’s poster) or if I had the good fortune to bump into them just walking down the street.  But when it came to that roundtable in a room with various beverages on a table in the corner, no matter how well I tried to play it, no matter what excuses I thought I had, I was just wrong.

I met so many of my peers this past week both at Comic-Con and during an event in Toronto (one I’m going to extreme lengths not to say anything about for fear I will be banned from just about everything that’s worth anything).  They treated me with respect.  They had read my writing and I their’s and those journalists were no longer just bylines or Twitter profiles or Facebook pages.  They were in this for real and I could no longer just be the guy in Atlanta with the freedom to do or say anything he wanted.  And the positive e-mails I’ve recently received about my work only cemented that fact because if I’m not willing to grow up and be a professional, then I’m basically giving a giant middle finger to my peers and to my readers all for my precious, precious pride and so I can show off my treasures; for the privilege of what I have and not what I earned.

I’ve come to accept that, whether I like it or not, I’m what’s next.  That’s not to be arrogant**, but I accept that I’m significantly younger than most of the people working in my field.  That makes me feel great about what I’ve accomplished in such a short period of time, but it’s time for me to either start playing in the big leagues or get out of the game.  Meeting guys like Drew McWeeny and Garth Franklin, the legends who made the path by walking it in the mid-90s, a time when I still wasn’t allowed to even watch R-rated movies (not because of the MPAA rating but because my mom thought they would warp me for life; I can’t say she was wrong…), made me realize that I don’t know better than them and I should be learning from these guys (and gals–Jenna Busch of JoBlo and other outlets deserves crazy respect for what she’s accomplished in her short time writing professionally about entertainment) instead of being so sure of my opinions.   If a new wave of film journalists are rising online, then me and the rest of us youngins have to learn and respect those who came before.  We must listen to the elders (although I know they hate me calling them that but I mean it in the best sense of the word) because there are those, and I suppose there always will be, those overly-ambitious and amoral journalists who find the rules archaic and inconvenient.  Journalistic integrity no longer matters because hey, we’re just guys who love movies.  Late to the party as I am, I now realize that’s nowhere near good enough.  I don’t know how I can run off at the mouth about other journalists for unethical behavior and not look at myself in the mirror while I’m busy throwing stones in my glass house.  Also, there’s a pot and a kettle on my stove and they’re calling each other names.

I do think I’ve done a lot right in the relatively short time I’ve been in this field.  I don’t think I could have made it this far in my profession, being so far from from all the other professionals, if I wasn’t contributing something.  People I met in San Diego in Toronto wouldn’t bother to talk to me if I was a total fuck-up (even if I could be manic with questions, jokes, and comments).  I still have to earn my place among them and saying “Well, I don’t pirate footage” or “I credit other sites most of the time” is nowhere near good enough.  It never has been.  That’s been the baseline.  To demand respect for obeying common sense is the height of entitlement, a trait I’ve tried so hard to avoid in my adult life.  Watching Drew yell his heart out about his anger towards another young journalist, I knew he wasn’t grandstanding or massaging his own ego.  He had been at this for over two decades and worked non-stop to earn the respect from every single film journalist, studio, producer, and publicist out there.  He scared me and I think that was partially because I knew his rage could just as easily be directed at me and I would deserve it.***

So this is my mea culpa.  The kindness and generosity of those I met this past week was overwhelming and it would be an insult to all of them if I continued on the way I have for the past several years.  I’m going to make Collider better and stop ripping exclusive video.  I’m going to make sure we start linking back to Variety and The Hollywood Reporter and simply write an editorial every time they steal a story rather than sink to their level and indulge in such petty behavior.  I’m better than that and certainly Steve Weintraub and Collider are better than that.  I was so proud of our Comic-Con coverage and what we accomplished with just the two of us and a handful of part-time writers.  That all becomes meaningless if I think that’s good enough to stand among all those who came before and worked their hearts and souls out just to legitimize the field of online journalism that allows me to live a life beyond the boundaries and borders I thought would always contain it.

I hope all of you will accept my most sincere apologies and allow me to do justice to you and and our field in the future.

*What with their fancy medical degrees, and residencies, and saving lives.  Screw that.  I played “Operation” as a kid.  My opinion is as good as theirs, if not better.

**Although I’ve recently learned that I can come off overly snarky, mean, arrogant, patronizing, and condescending in my writing and I forgot that when Steve first brought me on to Collider, he didn’t ask for snark; he asked for humor and I forgot that and I’m going to try to stop going for the easy laugh because I think I can do better than that; but if there’s a gay joke I can go for, I’m gonna whip it out as fast as I can.

***I also hope that Drew’s son, Toshi, never ever pisses off his dad.  If he gets yelled at even a fraction of a decibal I saw that night, he’s gonna be scarred for life.  Toshi, please make sure you brush your teeth before you go to bed so I can sleep easier at night.

Thursday, July 30th, 2009 criticism, movies, personal No Comments

Magic: The Wasted Youth

Magic: The GatheringFor all the parents out there, let me give you some advice: if your kid ever gets into a collectible card game, STOP THEM.  Of course, you can’t do this directly or else it will only further their obsession.  Get into it yourself and hopefully that will make it uncool.

I wasted some prime years of my life with a collectible card game called “Magic: The Gathering”.  When I say “prime years”, I’m talking the ages 11 through 14.  It’s that harsh middle school time when you’re first learning the basic steps of social interaction, especially with the opposite sex.  Instead of braving this playing field, I went to one of mana, tapping, and a game where I was never going to excel.  Sadly, no one slapped me on the back of the head and said “DON’T DO IT.”

I got into the game as I spent summers at Paideia summer camp.  It was THE game to play and rather than doing outdoor activities (which I’ve never been much for anyway), I would stay inside and play “Magic”.  Of course, the obsession carried over past summer camp and into a year-round activity.

It wasn’t the first time I had collected cards.  In fact, I’ve always been a bit of a collector, although I have no idea why.  Before “Magic” it was X-Men cards.  There was no gaming aspect but since I was spurred by the 90s “X-Men” TV show (a show which I now realize that despite some lousy voice acting and low-quality animation, was surprisingly faithful to its source material and didn’t shy away from mature content which was foreign to a Saturday morning cartoon show), I went for the collectible cards.  Oddly, the cards didn’t push me into the comic books.  Again, there was no one to slap me on the back of the head and say “Go back to the 80s comics because it’s got The Dark Phoenix Saga and some other good stuff,” and even in my younger days I saw that 90s comics were mostly crap (superhero comics haven’t gotten much better but it’s when you go outside that dominant genre that you find the good stuff like “Y: The Last Man”, “Ex Machina”, “100 Bullets”, “Transmetropolitan”, and “Sandman” among others).

So my collecting obsession went from one set of cards to another but this time there was a gaming element involved and it went all downhill from there.  For starters, I’ve never had much of a mind for strategy.  I can problem solve and tie my own shoe laces (although I won’t admit here how long it took before I figured that out and finally moved on from Velcro), but a key element of strategy is figuring out how your opponent will react and then compensating for that reaction.  There’s also setting traps, subtle manipulation, and timing.  All of these skills have moderately improved with age but as a 12-year-old kid, there was no way I could ever compete with guys in their late teens and early twenties.

The other problem is the way the game itself is set up.  “Magic: The Gathering” is not a finite set of cards.  Rather, it’s a real racket where new cards are constantly released and then other cards are moved to a list of “Restricted” or “Banned” while other cards go out of print entirely allowing for a collectors market where the most powerful cards carry a heavy premium sometime in excess of a hundred dollars (anything over a hundred dollars remains a high-priced item for me today, let alone when I was a kid with a $10 a week allowance).  So not only do you need the right cards to create the right deck, but you need the funds to either buy new packs of cards and hope you get lucky (and I will say, opening a deck of cards and getting a rare one was a great thrill but then again, so is winning the lottery–doesn’t mean it’s a good investment).  Ironically, sometimes the best decks are made out of common and inexpensive cards rather than the rare powerhouses.  Of course, as a dumb kid with absolutely no guidance or ability to craft effective stratagem, I was constantly throwing money away on new cards, trading for cards I thought I really needed, and it was all for nothing because I couldn’t put together a winning deck anyway.

Again, I wish someone had come along and smacked me on the back of the head and told me that if I was going to throw money away on packs of something, it may as well be cigarettes because while they’re even more addictive and bad for your health, at least they have the novelty of making you look cool (of course, procuring cigarettes in your pre-teens is a whole different problem, especially when you have no mind for strategy).   Of course, this is all the burden of being the oldest child: you have no experienced and trusted voice informing you of what to do and you basically have to figure it all out as you go along.  On the plus side, no one sticks a plunger on your face or ties you up, feeds you dog biscuits, and forces you to watch the Spanish Channel (my younger brother had it a little rough).

Even better advice is if someone had handed me a deck of playing cards and taught me “Texas Hold ‘Em” because there could actually be profit in it and I would never need to waste money on expansion packs or learn new rules or any of that nonsense.  Instead, (and be warned that this is probably the saddest thing you’ve ever read of mine) I spent almost every Friday night at home by myself organizing my cards.  I would dump out all of them, scramble them around, and then find a new way to organize them into boxes while I watched the “TGIF” line-up of “Family Matters”, “Step-by-Step” and other programming that was also a waste of time.  It’s true that I was going through a tough time since my parents had recently divorced and my dad had moved away and I guess in retrospect, it was therapeutic to be able to control something, even if it was something as silly as a organizing a bunch of collectible cards.

I mention all this because I’ve recently come back to “Magic: The Gathering” because they released an online version of it via XBox Live (I was also, and remain heavily into, videogames but they don’t really feel like wasted time because it was a more social activity and furthermore, it allows for a shared nostalgia today even though I didn’t know that the nostalgia would happen at the time; then again, I did have a sticker on my PSone that read “Girls Are No Substitute for a PlayStation”).  The nostalgia came flooding back when I played the demo and I eventually shelled out the $12 for the full version.  And coming at it with experienced eyes, I learned a few things.

For starters, the computer plays smart.  It knows how to play lands, when to play certain cards, when to attack, when to block, and what spells to play.  As far as AI goes, the designers really did a bang-up job.  And since I have a more functional brain, I’ve learned how to become a better player as opposed to when I was kid and thought that my defeats were really just the product of having inferior cards or that my opponent was simply way smarter than me.  Granted, it was probably a mixture of both but I didn’t even understand basic strategy although in my defense, “Magic” is a ridiculously complicated game.  The “Starter Pack” comes with a 60-page rule book which outlines the many facets of the game.  I remember trying to teach those unfamiliar with the game and failing at it every time.  I’m sure I got brownie points for just being able to understand it at my age but kids have a capacity for comprehending games that’s widely underestimated.

The game removes a lot of the headache I found with the real-world version.  To begin, that twelve bucks is it.  Almost all of the cards are available from the start and all you have to do to earn new cards for a deck is win a match against an online opponent using that deck.  They may release online expansion packs in the future, but I imagine those packs will still be a set amount of cards rather than a random collection that’s nothing but luck of the draw.  With a set number of cards, the online play comes down to pure strategy and composition.  Sadly, there’s no option to make a deck all your own although you can add and remove the additional cards you’ve won from matches.  But since the game has pre-constructed the deck, it’s kind of a relief because in a weird way, that’s the tremendous burden of the game: you have thousands of cards to choose from and you have to make a deck out of them.  The deck has to be at least sixty cards (maybe it’s forty; I forget) but if you make it too large, you reduce the odds of getting the cards you need.  And you need those cards to interact in just the right way and it still may not help because it may be the wrong way to defeat your opponent (which basically kills the strategy element).  Because all the decks the game offers are pre-constructed, you can better predict what cards they may hold and how you should respond.

But that leads to another of the game’s key flaws: too much depends on luck.  Sure, there’s luck involved in poker but the best players know how to rely on skill.  I suppose the same could be said of “Magic” except the game is too complicated and has too many variables.  You could have a fantastically constructed deck but if you’re drawing not enough mana or you’re drawing too much, you’re shit out of luck.

The online version also reveals how the game has changed over time and I would argue it’s not for the better.  In an effort to keep the game fresh, its designers have added new abilities which have made for overpowered spells and creatures.  In the decade since I’ve played the game, creatures now possess abilities like “Deathtouch”, “Double Strike”, “Fear”, “Haste”, and even the ability to not be the target of spells or the ability to not be blocked by opposing creatures.  I don’t know if these cards are rare or not but the fact that these abilities exist in the first place is disconcerting and I can’t help but wonder how many have been turned off from the game by these new additions.

I’m not exactly sure how I grew out of the game.  Maybe it was just part of growing up although I think I started to put more of my energies into videogames, especially RPGs.  I also realized that even if I took up the collector’s side of the equation (focusing not on the gaming but on the pricing and trading of cards), I was still gonna get fleeced by professionals who knew that a shy kid like me wasn’t going to haggle over price.  I still have most of my cards and even though some may have accrued in value and may be worth selling, I can’t really part with them because they were a significant part of my past, despite how nerdy and time-wasting it was.

Today, my collection is mostly DVDs although I’ve even cut back on that as I’ve slowly realized that despite my massive collection, I rarely return to the discs and don’t really have the time to delve into special features.  Also, as film distribution shifts to a digital medium, I’ m not really jumping at the chance to own more of a physical copy that, when added to the hundreds of DVDs I own, makes for a frustrating trial of storage and transportation.  Still, those movies have added to my cinematic knowledge and made me a better film journalist.  They also allow me to share my love of cinema with friends and I’m happy to loan out my films (although I certainly need to do a better job of tracking who’s borrowing what).

What I find a little funny is that among nerdy obsessions, mine was kind of at the bottom of the nerd hierarchy.  In the geek culture, there’s more love for collecting comic books or playing Dungeons & Dragons.  I suppose I could have joined those groups but no one was around to smack me on the back of the head and hand me a d20.

Saturday, July 18th, 2009 personal No Comments
 
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