Blog Machine City

Postcards from Tradocia

Author: Delobius (page 2 of 57)

WOBC, Week Three

I’m not sure why the “Sex Rules” are only for leaders. Interestingly, I realized that I framed

It's important to have rules

It’s important to have rules

this image such that it sums up the Army’s current attitude towards sexual relations:

“IS A CRIME” – “NO” – “IT’S SEXUAL ASSAULT” – “CONTACT IS WRONG”

And that’s all I have to say about that.

I’ve settled into a routine here, after the turbulent first week, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t halfway enjoying myself. Our “ACE” (no idea what the acronym means, but it’s a

senior warrant officer assigned to the class as adviser) only interacts with the student class leader, which means that most of the time, we’re free to manage our own affairs. Maybe it says something about the amount of coddling soldiers receive when simply deciding when to get up and when to go to bed qualify as major personal freedoms, but it’s nice to be treated as an adult all the same.

The accommodations are much nicer than over at the NCO academy; it’s downright civilized to have your own fridge and microwave and toaster, and to be able to roll out of bed and go to your own bathroom and not see any other naked men on the way. My room in the on-post hotel is basically a studio apartment (though no stove), and I go to class all week, so it’s kind of a student lifestyle here. In a way, this feels like Army graduate school (though not in terms of academic rigor, at least not for me); Iraq felt like being an undergrad (not basic training or AIT – the experiences are their own things). In a very real sense, Iraq was the college dorm life experience that I never had; I was a commuter student in college, so I never had that during my actual school days.

Apparently the lieutenants living here never left college, as they seem to be treating this place like a dorm. I was awakened at about 0300 Saturday morning by drunken yelling outside my window, followed by pounding footsteps on the floor above me. I know they were 2nd lieutenants and not warrant officers, because all of us crusty warrants have kids and bills to pay and divorces to fund, and so can’t afford the all-night per-diem-fueled benders that the butter-bars can. Also, you kids get off my lawn!

But they are kids – as a relative baby-face myself, it might sound ironic – but some of these young officers might not yet be old enough to drink. Seeing young privates is one thing; you know they’re supposed to look like that. But officers…I guess that in the units I’ve been a part of, the lieutenants had at least a couple years under their belts before showing up (whether by luck or by design), and so I never dealt with the stereotypical new officer. Us new warrants dutifully salute the new lieutenants, and marvel at their youth and naivete after we pass. I’m sure they’re not all clueless naifs, but it doesn’t help when you overhear them saying things like, “Are you wearing your warmsies?” on a cold November morning. Would you like some graham crackers and a nap with your “warmsies”?

WOBC, Week One

Energy Donkey welcomes you to Fort Gordon

Energy Donkey welcomes you to Fort Gordon

I’m not sure what the campaign-hat-wearing donkey (or ass, if you prefer) has to do with energy conservation, but I’m sure it’s a metaphor for something in this place.

By this place, of course I’m referring to the Signal Center of Excellence, that Army installation that we all love to hate, our telecommunications Valhalla and electronic purgatory, Fort Gordon.

I was last here in 2009-2010 for ALC (which I’m pretty sure stands for Advanced Lawn Care), which was by far the dumbest thing I’ve had to do in the Army. The pure, distilled stupidity of those fourteen weeks exceeded anything I encountered in two overseas deployments – it truly represented the low point in my Army career.

Driving through the gate last week, I realized that despite how much I hated ALC, it made an indelible impression on my psyche, like a photo negative etched by my hateful feelings for the event. For the first couple of days, I had to make a conscious effort to stop myself from saying things like, “when I was here for ALC…” when I realized that a considerable portion of my spoken communication began with that phrase. I started to sound like an obsessive.

Two trips to the Middle East didn’t break my mind, but one stint at the Regimental NCO Academy sure did.

Luckily, being here as a warrant officer bears little resemblance to that experience – by and large, we’re treated like human beings, if not almost like adults. But there’s another flavor to the experience here, one that I somehow didn’t expect: it’s like being on active duty.

For a Guardsman, it’s a cultural shift, maybe more so than the usual shift into an Army school environment. In the Guard, time is always at a premium; there are never enough hours or days or weeks to accomplish everything, since we’re expected to perform in an equivalent manner to the active component with only “one weekend a month and two weeks a year” to do it. This seems to have two second-order effects: one, it creates a culture of short, intense periods of work, followed by downtime, since you never know if you’ll get the task done in time. Two, some of the finer points of military life – formations, military courtesies, etc. – tend to take on less importance. The protocol overhead becomes excessive, and is dropped as a result.

Here, it seems exactly the opposite: we have nothing but time (or so they say), and it’s all about the niceties and sideband activities of military life. Things like briefings, paperwork for four-day passes, fall cleanup, “volunteer” activity, and so on seem to consume an inordinate amount of time when we’re supposed to be worrying about our technical training.

There’s also an incredible emphasis on risk avoidance and consequences for various types of bad behavior. Apparently, the most important things we do here are expressed as negatives: don’t drink and drive, don’t fraternize, don’t speed on post, don’t jaywalk, don’t hit any pedestrians, don’t let privates not salute you, don’t fail any tests. Those topics were covered by no fewer than four people on our main day of inprocessing briefings, and again on the next day by yet another Fort Gordon luminary. The battalion commander is briefing us next week, and I don’t think anyone would bet against him hitting those highlights yet again.

All of these proscriptions add up to create this strange fearful atmosphere, where it seems that any wrongdoing, no matter how minor, will result in swift and fierce retribution, spelling a rapid and spectacular demise for our budding warrant officer careers. The post commander evidently reinforces this atmosphere: the briefers last week regaled us with stories of his ride-alongs with MPs, working the front gate in his PT uniform, excoriating people who don’t pick up litter alongside the road, and more.

I understand that the Army is, by its nature, a rules-based organization, and punishing soldiers for small, weird offenses in the name of “good order and discipline” is nothing new. But this new culture seems unsettling, and – dare I say – vaguely tyrannical. In prohibiting various behaviors for ostensibly well-intentioned ends, it brews a zero-tolerance mindset for any mistakes or infractions, and defines success as watching for rule-breakers rather than accomplishing the mission. This sounds more like a stereotypical corporate bureaucracy rather than a fighting force, but as the mandated force reductions scythe through the active component (a reduction of 80,000 soldiers by FY2015), these tendencies will only become more intense.

I guess that’s what they mean by a “peacetime Army,” but the peacetime Army always becomes a wartime Army again, and we learn the hard lessons anew each time…

The Longest 15 Days

On Saturday, September 21st, I took the oath of office and accepted my appointment as a Warrant Officer One in the United States Army and the Minnesota Army National Guard. It was a moment more than a year in the making: I was federally recognized (“fed rec’ed,” as they say) as a warrant officer candidate in June of 2012, and started the application process long before that. Seven months of drill weekends and fifteen days at sweaty Camp Atterbury, Indiana came to a head that sunny morning when I and 157 of my classmates spoke the oath, leaving our enlisted careers behind.

In talking to warrant officers before I began the ritual dance known as WOCS, few provided any insight or even any amusing anecdotes about the experience. They painted broad strokes of misery, and offered helpful tidbits like “your class better develop teamwork quickly,” but weren’t otherwise forthcoming about their experiences. I thought that maybe part of the warrant officer mystique was some informal oath of silence, to better preserve the system shock of screaming black-hats and endless sock-stenciling that awaited beyond the gates of WOCS.

Now that I’m done, though, I see why those warrants had so little to say. All the trivialities that consumed my life for all those long days and nights (does the fold of the towel face in or out?), the minutiae that were elevated to life-or-death importance (do the collars of the shirts face up or to the left in the drawer?) – all those things vanish from the mind like waking from a horrible dream once those silver bars are pinned on your shoulders. Looking back now, even less than a week later, I wonder what the big deal was. After all, it was just writing some memos, and stenciling my name, and folding some socks… It is as if the reward at the end of that long path was so eminently worth it that it obliterated all that came before. It’s not as if the benefits have already begun to accrue – I haven’t even yet received my first paycheck as a warrant officer! – but rather that the verdant spring valley of the future stretches out before me in endless beauty and possibility, made all the more sweet after the sulfur-choked hell-cave through which I had just passed.

Embarking on this journey, I asked myself – at first rhetorically, but with increasing seriousness as WOCS dragged on – how much of this process is actually training, and how much is instead ritual? Certainly, no one in the schoolhouse chain of command would ever admit that any of the stupid shit that happens in WOCS is for any other reason than the training of the candidates. But try as one might to see a grand design behind things like making up warrant officer-themed lyrics to Justin Bieber songs, sometimes the conclusion is inescapable: a large part of WOCS is a giant shit test. It’s a giant ring of daunting mountains that surrounds the aforementioned spring valley of awesomeness, and you have to go through a little bit of hell to get inside. But once you cross those mountains, life is good.

Unlike Officer Candidate School (OCS), which is designed to mold inexperienced candidates into junior officers (or, less charitably, to lobotomize them), WOCS is merely a scouring process, or a midcourse correction. It doesn’t have to make something from nothing – warrant officer candidates are already experienced soldiers, so the raw material is already there – it just has to strip off the rough edges and smooth out some of the more unsightly blemishes. It’s not long enough to completely remold a soldier, either; instead, it instills a powerful sense – maybe a sacred charge – that says, if I’m in charge, things will never be this stupid again.

(Another post will follow with various amusing anecdotes and observations about the long fifteen days of Phase III.)

The Great Get-Together

I’m not sure exactly why I like the Minnesota State Fair. Most everything in my psychological profile would contraindicate even going to such an event, let alone liking it: introversion, hatred of crowds, a general disdain for and unwillingness to participate in popular culture. And yet I love it. I enjoy the crowd, the inevitable stifling heat (with this year being the hottest Fair on record), the human spectacle, and soaking in the experience that is unique to our state.

One thing that makes the Fair easy to like is the transportation. Despite massive attendance (with over 1.7 million visitors in a two week period, averaging about 150,000 a 20130901-IMG_6083day), getting in and out is easy. It’s literally easier to go to the state fair than it is to visit the Mall of America on an average day, thanks to the well-placed park & ride lots and smooth-running shuttle buses. It’s all free, too – making for very little hassle.

What I truly enjoy, though, is that despite its size, the Fair is a conglomeration of local entities, with local employees and local stuff. Big corporations are represented there, to be sure – there’s a Culligan building and John Deere tractors and Gander Mountain stage shows – but it feels authentic despite those exceptions. There’s no Burger King or McDonald’s booth, and in an era of corporate sponsorship for everything (TCF Bank Stadium on a college campus for fuck’s sake), the Fair is still just the “Minnesota State Fair.”

It also is a reminder of Minnesota’s agricultural foundation, as both a link to the past as well as a window into that vast part of the state that cosmopolitan Twin Citians would often like to forget. I love it that an event attended by nearly two million people who mostly eat fried things and drink beer also has a building where people’s corn and soybeans are evaluated and compared. It’s refreshingly real; nobody is entering the dahlia or dairy goat contests ironically, but with clear-eyed earnestness that seems all but dead in the “sustainable urban core.”

The photography is a delight, with the variety of people, colors, textures, and generally weird shit. People photography is tough for an introvert like me, though, especially since most people react strangely when I’m wielding my massive SLR.

As an aside, if I hear one more time about “wow, that camera sure is big! holy crap! can you take pictures of the moon with that?,” I’m going to fucking puke. Yes, I know it’s big, that’s why my neck is so damn sore. Leave me alone! Another favorite line of conversation is “wow, that looks expensive! How much did it cost?” You’ve got an iPhone, asshole, look it up yourself. The model number is embroidered on the neck strap that I’m currently using to garrotte you.

Eating is obviously one of the highlights of the event (almost as an afterthought, he realizes). Deep-fried apple pie sounds horribly greasy (think of the old McDonald’s apple pies, before they were lawyered out of existence or something), but I can assure you that it was anything but – indeed, it was divine, the best thing I’ve had there in years.

I’m already looking forward to next year…

Reach Out to the Truth

yu-finishPeople play video games for many different reasons: for escape, a sense of accomplishment, to waste time, to get paid. Most gaming these days seems to be about filling up bars and making numbers go up (see the seemingly endless procession of bars, numbers, and accompanying guitar riffs in any of the Call of Duty games since #4); hell, even football games have become an exercise in leveling up. As a now-crusty role-playing game veteran, one would think I would be pleased with the way that the nerdiest of the nerds have conquered the gaming industry, but in typically contrarian fashion, I hate it.

As with everything, I don’t want all the things to be like the one thing that I like. If I want to play an RPG, I’ll fire up Final Fantasy or Persona or whatever. If I want to shoot people in the face, I want to get to doing just that – keep your leveling-up and grinding and other new-fangled shit out of my murder simulator!

At any rate, I didn’t intend for this to veer into crotchety video game criticism; rather, it’s about why I play games. Despite having been playing them for nearly three decades (!), I have only just thought about the topic. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been staring into a glowing rectangle for damn near thirty years and it’s become a lifestyle and people in their mid-thirties on the Internet have to engage in serious navel-gazing about the most trivial of shit.

I woke up from a dream a few months ago, and as I often do, I was awash in feelings afterwards. What they were isn’t important; I don’t remember now anyway. I recalled the events of the dream as well as the feelings, but I realized in trying to explain the dream to Mrs. Melobi that a mere explanation of the events therein was totally inadequate to convey the milieu, the richly layered world presented by my subconscious in ornate (but sublimely incomplete) detail. It made me think of the only part of the movie Inception that I liked, when Cobb explains the dream process as being a cycle of simultaneous creation and perception.

Later, while playing a game, I realized that my experience with video games is often analogous to a dream. Not in the sense of doing things impossible in real life, or in wish fulfillment (though those are of course part of the experience); rather, it’s dreamlike in the sense of being immersed, with consciousness submerging into visuals and sounds and the on-screen action. The best games are dreamlike, too, in that afterwards describing them is difficult, as the grasp on those feelings brought on by the game vanish with the press of the power button, just as surely as snapping awake with the alarm clock.

I think this is why music has emerged as one of my main criteria for games: music is powerful in evoking emotions even on its own, and a well-crafted score combined with the visual content of a game is a powerful drug. The graphics and text of a game lead you inside that virtual world, but the music compels you to stay, enfolding your second dominant sense and shutting out the mundane, soundtrack-free world outside. (Maybe this isn’t unusual, but it’s extremely rare for me to experience taste or smell sensations in a dream, thus amplifying this effect in the waking world.)

Naturally, there are other reasons that I play games – cutting cyborgs in half and pulling out their spinal columns, then crushing them in your fist while your eye glows red sure is a powerful motivator – but this embarrassingly self-aware motivation might just be the main one (for single player games, anyway). Either that, or I just can’t stop filling up those bars.

The Subtle Pleasures of Suburban Life

Though I never consciously sought to avoid it, I never imagined myself becoming the quintessential suburban man, wielding mower and grill tongs and sprinkler apparatus; and indeed, I’m amazed by the speed at which the transformation occurred. I never looked down on suburban dwellers, like some – I spent my formative years as one, after all – but I certainly had no great desire to fertilize a lawn or paint a shed or any of that other homeowner-type crap. Additionally, most of my lawn care has been in the context of Army duty, which leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth about the whole process.

However, after a little more than a year in our new house, I’ve found that there’s a subtle pleasure in those mundane tasks of nurturing and building, improving and organizing, structuring the home in a pleasing manner for yourself and others. The lawn seems like some echo of humanity’s tendencies since the development of agriculture: a man’s plot, tending and observing it with a critical eye, dealing with living things but bending them to his will, rather than living wild among them. Or maybe it’s a metaphor for the American family farm, writ small, a green square of earth in miniature for our enjoyment rather than for sustenance.

A more cynical sort (spare me your laughter, those of you reading this who know me well) might describe the lawn as a representation of the American propensity for tacky, pointless ornamentation, promiscuous consumerism, and blatant disregard for the order of nature. They might also hold it up as a symbol of the crushing, soulless conformity inherited from the most hated of American eras, the 1950s, where the suburban ideal began to emerge. They might be right about all those things, but I would also argue that the suburban lifestyle developed because people wanted it that way.

People move to the suburbs for many reasons – to raise a family, have more space, peace and quiet, to be in a lower-density area in case of a zombie apocalypse – but mostly, they’re voluntary. I didn’t read a glossy brochure that blared, “Move to Conform-O Town! It’s Great Here!” – I moved here because I didn’t like living in the city. (Mrs. Melobi moved here because I twisted her arm, but that’s another story.)

I’ve adapted well to my new role, in any case; as an example, the house came with a lawn mower (a Honda of roughly 1986 vintage) and I immediately set about fixing it up, going so far as to paint it black so that it looked better. Who cares what your lawn mower looks like? I did, damn it – and let me tell you, that thing not only looks good, but it cuts a mean blade of grass, too. Thing purrs right along, too, despite being nearly as old as I am, and it also lacks a dead-man switch (thanks to having been built before we had things like “safety” and “liability concerns”), which is quite convenient.

See how thoroughly adapted I am? I just wrote a paragraph about my fucking lawn mower. But seriously, it’s awesome!

It’s not like I’m spending hours a day out there and thousands of dollars on grass care; I keep the mowing to thirty minutes each for front and back, with a quick trim and occasional watering. But it’s a strangely pleasant diversion to listen to my badass old lawn mower thrum along and wave at the neighbors and make things look nice (though not quite as nice as the neighbors, who probably have a lot more money invested in their lawn).

While mowing, I even had an encounter that I never would have had otherwise, when an old guy and his wife pulled up in a minivan with Illinois plates. They rolled down the window and related that he had grown up in the farmhouse where my house now stood, and he graduated from the local high school, class of 1943. The old man was completely deaf, and fairly screamed out the window at me about working at the gas station and raising sheep and chasing cows and joining the Navy. His wife said that the visited every year or so, to see how the old neighborhood was getting along, and that it had changed quite a bit (since all the houses on our block were built in 2003). It was nice chat, and interesting to hear about the history of the land that had once been farmed and was now my own little slice of green to tend. And I never would have talked to them, had I not been out mowing my suburban yard with my sweet custom-painted Honda.

Hand me that Dremel

Ordinarily, when a dark-skinned man opens your mother’s chest with a power tool early in the morning, one might be inclined to reach for his sidearm or other instrument of revenge.

In this case, though, we’re all writing him a fat check. Metaphorically, of course – my mom’s on Medicare and we’re talking about heart surgery.

A little more than two weeks ago, a surgeon buzzed through my mom’s sternum, stopped her heart, and inserted a valve from a cow into her aorta. He then sewed her back up, wheeled her out, and washed up – all in about the time it takes to watch one of the extended Lord of the Rings movies. “Routine surgery,” he called it, though anything that looks like an autopsy in progress is hardly routine in my opinion. I couldn’t help but marvel at both the state of medicine and the resilience of the human body; the former for its precision and mechanical approach to the flesh, the latter for sustaining abuse in the name of healing more gruesome than nature had ever intended.

Her recovery seemed excellent, and within two days she was to be moved out of the ICU. Moving her into the wheelchair, though, she reported that she felt faint. Oh, you’re fine, assured the nurse. Then faint she did – and her heart stopped, triggering a “code blue,” summoning the entire ICU staff to her room. They performed CPR on her for several minutes and were able to revive her, but at great cost to her recovery: she’s still in the hospital, eighteen days later.

That Sunday wasn’t the first time this year that I had stared down shinigami at my mother’s bedside; the first was just after Christmas, when her COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) laid her low, bringing her within a hair’s breadth of death by respiratory failure. This was brought on, of course, by her smoking – a habit that she’s unwilling (and unable) to break, even up to the day of her heart surgery. I’m hoping that these hospital vigils don’t become a regular occurrence, but with her history as a serial boundary-pusher, I can only think that this won’t be the last time that I find myself at her bed, wondering, “is she still unkillable? Has she used up her nine lives, or does she have yet one more to bring forth with her iron will?”

The Only Thing I Know for Real

Warrant Officer 1My journey down the path of the warrant officer continues, with only three more weekends and a two-week annual training between me and the so-called “thousand-dollar dot.” The rank gets the name from the black dot (obviously) and the fact that one has to buy a bunch of crap (uniforms, stencils, markers, paint, towels, shirts…) during the course. I think it would be better named the “thousand-letter dot,” since I had to write or stencil my name on every piece of gear and clothing I own, to include socks, underwear, t-shirts, uniforms, gloves, and shoes. A true “what am I doing with my life?” moment came when I was standing in the back yard, applying Krylon spray paint to my 99 cent shower shoes.

The first weekend was a fascinating exercise in self-inflicted stress. We all had a good idea of what to expect – indeed, after three months of preparatory drill weekends, we were arguably over-prepared, our heads bursting with the innumerable tasks and functions we were expected to perform. So it was with some manic force propelling us that we rolled our socks, arranged our towels, and made our beds, hands shaking and tension high. Looking back, I wondered why we were so anxious – our TAC officer (Train, Advise, Counsel, also known as a “black hat”) hardly uttered a word of admonition all weekend, except for one night, when he calmly told us to get down and start pushing. Just the very thought of his mere disapproval was enough to send us into paroxysms of effort; for my part, I was stricken with a blinding headache for most of Saturday in what must have been my first migraine.

The very fact that everybody cared so damn much about lining up our towels and stacking our books and taping up loose straps on our bags speaks to the fact that you don’t get into the warrant officer program unless you already have the traits necessary to succeed. In a way, WOCS isn’t a barrier to one’s accession to chief-hood, but rather a validation, an exercise in tautology. You don’t get to WOCS without being able to get through WOCS.

As the second weekend approached, I felt much better about the situation. I felt like I had the measure of WOCS, and that nothing particularly fatal lurked within – just a lot of fatigue of the physical and mental varieties. As usual, I wanted to dramatize the situation, to turn this thing into an epic quest, but I realized that it’s just a slog of twenty-hour days and struggling to stay awake in a classroom.

One of the major parts of the slog is a 10-kilometer (about 6.2 mile) ruck march, carrying a 48 pound load (not including water, helmet, and fake rifle), to be accomplished in 106 minutes or less. During the second weekend we did a short march – just 2.5 miles – which seemed like a nice easy nature walk when it was briefed to us. Within the first ten minutes I realized my error, as my shins and calves burned and I struggled to keep up with our TAC, who seemed to have concealed rocket thrusters in his rucksack. As both the shortest and lightest guy in the class, I felt like I got a raw deal: not only did I have the shortest stride, but I was also carrying the largest percentage of my body weight (about 33%). I spent a lot of time jogging. I figured out the technique by the end, but I have a lot of training to do between now and July.

The state Command Chief Warrant Officer (CCWO) taught our class on the history of the Army warrant officer, and it was hard not to feel charged with sacred purpose after hearing him expound on our heritage. I’m quite glad that I opted for the state WOCS program instead of the federal one at Fort Rucker, because it’s much more inspiring to marinate in the world of our own warrant officers – from new WO1s to the CCWO – than to be lectured by anonymous active duty warrants who know little of our unique world of the National Guard.

It seems hard to believe that in four months I’ll pin WO1 and I’ll become “Mr. Delobius.” I’ve already asked the guys at work if they’re going to start calling me “sir” – and I hope not, because I desire dominion over no man. If I wanted kowtowing, I would’ve become a commissioned officer.

 

Wakka Wakka

What is this weird thing on my chest?

What is this weird thing on my chest?

I’ve started on the path of the warrant officer by way of our state’s Warrant Officer Candidate School (WOCS). Unlike those who attend the federal WOCS course at Fort Rucker, Alabama – who enter the school as an enlisted soldier and leave a shiny warrant officer – I will undergo a six-month transition, basically waddling around in this pupal state for all to see.

It’s an awkward transition not unlike puberty, where others are unsure how to interact with you and you can’t yet identify your mutating role in the world. I’ve been sirred a couple of times already, which is amusing when a young specialist does it but strangely disconcerting when it’s someone who was a peer in rank just a few weeks before. More than one person has asked if they’re supposed to salute me (no), and many more have asked what to even call me (“candidate” is fine, I guess).

Another side-effect of my slow-motion metamorphosis is that it requires a mental gearing-up before each drill weekend. Monday through Friday, it’s all “hey Dave” and laughs around the water cooler, regardless of ranks, but when the WOCS drill weekend arrives it becomes “yes sir” and “no sir” and snap-to and “CANDIDATE DELOBIUS SIR.” The week before drill the thing hangs over me like a black cloud and it hasn’t even really started yet (April is the first no-shit real WOCS drill). Last night I had a dream that we held the class in my house and I got yelled at because I didn’t have a projector screen; earlier in the week I dreamed that our team-building exercise was piloting a massive cargo ship without looking out the windows. Shit, I thought, it’s bad enough that I know nothing about operating a giant boat, but I have to do it blind, too? Objectively speaking, there’s really very little to be afraid of, but even so the process is a black box and my subconscious is working overtime to crack it open, however futile that might be.

Another facet of WOCS is the seemingly endless list of rules and regulations governing our lives there. Detailed protocols dictate all manner of behavior, including dining, with rules about how many utensils to take, where they should be placed (to the quarter-inch) on the tray, and how to fold your napkin. All told, the WOC Standard Operating Procedures (WOCSOP) is a PDF document almost 120 pages long, two columns per page – a fat rulebook for the roleplaying game called WOCS. (Cue an angry warrant officer berating me for not taking this seriously – “you think this is a game, candidate?”)

Actually, having a massive rulebook suits me just fine; if everything is written down, it keeps the amount of invented bullshit to a minimum. It’s easy (comparatively) to meet expectations if they’re explicitly defined. Additionally, I’ve proven many a point during my career with the thorough look through obscure manuals and regulations. I wield well-timed quotes as weapons, and will not hesitate to do so here. As long as I don’t have to steer any watercraft, I should do just fine.

The Games of Yore

classic_collection

Didn’t I have these games already?

Lately I’ve been on something of a “classic gaming” kick, revisiting in physical form many of my favorite games of days past. I hesitate to call it “retro” gaming, because per the definition of retro:

relating to, reviving, or being the styles and especially the fashions of the past : fashionably nostalgic or old-fashioned <a retro look>

there is an implication of being fashionable, or adopting old things as an affectation. I’m not engaging in this activity in some sort of ironic, hipsterized way that pervades our culture (I’m not about to start drinking PBR, either); rather, in a real sense, I never left the 16-bit era. I just sold off a shitload of the stuff, and am now simply buying some of it back as a collector, something that I have never had the urge to become.

It all started (as many of these things do) with idle web browsing. I came across an article detailing how to turn a Super Nintendo controller into a USB controller with built-in flash memory, thus enabling one to have literally every SNES game ever made in the palm of your hand, playable on any computer, for less than the cost of a single one of those games in 1993. It’s an obvious idea in retrospect, but my mind was blown. Shortly after, while browsing the local used book store, I saw a really well-preserved SNES controller on the shelf (yes, at the book store), and bought it on a whim. This, of course, is always the snowflake that starts the avalanche; with a controller, one certainly needs a console, and games to go with it!

This led to a trip to the video game store, a locally-owned affair with an eclectic mix of old games, new games, DVDs, and geek paraphernalia. As a store of its type, it’s unremarkable, save for one distinction: the beautiful young woman behind the counter. With her winsome smile, shocking peroxide-blonde hair, and a buy-one-get-one-free sale sign on the counter, I was soon stacking cartridges in front of the register. Castlevania II was playing on a TV in the background, the town theme bumping out of the speakers, and I commented on her choice of game. “Yeah,” she said, “I just wish the first Castlevania didn’t have a timer – I could listen to Vampire Killer all day!” Citing a classic video game music track by name sealed the deal – I was in love. Too bad about the whole married thing…

Games in hand, I now needed consoles. I acquired a refurbished NES from another store (and then found out that seemingly everyone besides me had a NES lurking in the basement), and SGT Dock hooked me up with his SNES and a few more games. (Some of the games are utterly terrible, like Super Godzilla and Super Ninja Boy, continuing what has become a game of shitty media one-upsmanship against each other.)

cybernator

Partying like it’s 1999

Despite having played games on all of these systems using emulators on the PC for many years, I found there is a distinct difference playing them as intended, using real hardware and a CRT television. Control is more direct, with no abstraction between player input and game action, and the experience is more direct, too: no dropping out of the game to check Facebook or read email. You turn the thing on and damn it, that’s what you’re doing until you’re done!

The experience is not particularly one of nostalgia, since a) the games I bought have stood up well over the years and b) I’ve played many of them in emulators, some quite recently. Nor is it a crotchety sense of “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” since plenty of modern games are in many ways better, not just graphically but as complete packages. Instead, these games stand on their own, much like any media of another age, a different style but no less enjoyable for that.

[Collector side-note: don’t blow into your NES cartridges, as we did as children. This just blows spit and water vapor onto the cartridge connectors, causing corrosion. Use a q-tip and rubbing alcohol to clean them instead. You’ll be surprised at how dirty that q-tip will be!]

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