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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

LARP Nerds

Friends don’t let friends do Live Action Role Playing (LARP). It’s like getting dragged to a grade school production of Peter Pan, spending a day at a renaissance fair(e), and sitting through a goth poetry reading all at the same time. And LARP events are usually scheduled to last for an entire weekend. It’s a big game of Let’s Pretend for the socially inept, with terrible acting, ridiculous costumes, blatant attention whoring and the most desperate cries for help you’ll see this side of a successful suicide.

LARP fans tell themselves that if enough people do it, it must not be pitiful, but at the end of the day it’s still a bunch of feral nerds playing dress-up in the woods. And while LARP enthusiasts are harmless on their own, they can exhibit a pretty savage pack mentality in larger groups. A sensible person gives LARP events a wide berth, leaving the town, county, and even state that they are held in whenever possible.

I wish that I had been a sensible person in college. That way, I wouldn’t have found myself dressing up like a ninja with some other loser, trying to sell a pretend key to a third loser who was dressed like Robin Hood on laundry day. And if anyone tried to pick a fight with us, we had to throw the fight. It was the kind of ordeal that shouldn’t even be wished on folk singers.

We weren’t called ninjas, the official name was something ridiculous and copyrighted that I have long since forgotten, but we were dressed all in black, and we were supposed to have come from a country with “strong Asian cultural influences.” We weren’t really given much more information than that. Or maybe we were. I might have missed the key part of our NotNinja briefing that explained why two trained killers who strike from the shadows were supposed to be wandering around in the middle of the day doing a traveling salesman act.

Eventually, we found one of the guys who was supposed to buy the key from us. He was a greasy, red-haired "rogue" who would never know the touch of a woman, but after we sold the key to him we could ditch the stupid outfits and go do something else. At least, we were supposed to, but we ran into some trouble.

We had completed the sale and were hustling off to do something less demeaning when one of the huskier pretenders called out to us. He looked like a complete mess, with oily hair that had clumped into rudimentary dreadlocks, and a scrubby goatee, accented by an outlandish costume that Gary Glitter wouldn’t even have worn in the privacy of his own bedroom with all his lights turned off. Imagine the fattest hog you can rooting through Liberace’s closet and then getting caught in a category 5 greasestorm. A gruesome spectacle.

I should have ran the moment he opened his greasy, fur-lined mouth. Ran straight back to my car and driven home. Because he had told us to halt. No one there was in the army, no one was dressed like a soldier, and we were miles from the nearest military base, but he actually used the word “halt.” And once we did, he jiggled over.

As he panted closer, I got a better look at Duke Fatbert Largefield. He never recited his pedigree, but from his bearing and the various trophies of battle that were scattered about his costume, I could piece it together myself. Born in the butterlands, he had bested a wild pack of ding-dongs in hand-to-mouth combat, and was awarded with a knighthood in the order of the Burst Girdle for it. Then he laid waste to the Kingdom of Frito Lay, and became the Earl of Beefington. Finally, he went on to claim the title of Viscount of Tubbsfull and became the scourge of Little Debbie Snack Cakes everywhere. But since listing all of his titles here would be tedious both to write and to read, I’ll simplify it and use a shorter name that conveys the power and grandeur of the individual involved. I’ll call him the Hulk. His associates, ten grown men wearing garish and unflattering pyjamas, gathered behind him.

In his most imperious tone, the Hulk began his interrogation. “What are you doing here?”

I wish I knew. I was told that it was supposed to be a fun weekend with some interesting people, and I had been quite thoroughly lied to. But since I didn’t have anything nice to say, I followed mom’s advice and didn’t say anything at all. My fellow ninja chose that time to practice his impression of Marcel Marceau, so we all just stared at each other for a minute.

The problem was that I knew so little about their world of make-believe that I had no idea how to answer. What did ninjas in their world do? Work long hours with one eye on the clock, waiting for a chance to get home to their families, maybe falling asleep on their recliners at the end of the day, with cold drinks in their hands? I figured that I was just an average, garden-variety ninja. A regular Joe Sake-pack, maybe with a ninja mortgage, and two ninja kids I was trying to put through ninja school, counting the hours until quitting time and hoping that the ninja union could negotiate better wages in the next round of ninja contract talks. Or whatever it was that an average ninja from NotJapan was supposed to do. And this average ninja just wanted to quietly slink off to someplace that he could change into a slightly less humiliating costume.

The Hulk took a deep breath, flaring his nostrils. “I asked what you are doing in these parts!”

I ventured a response. “We, uh, have a business to conduct.” Mid-sentence, I remembered that I was supposed to be Asian. So I squinted, and used an accent that came out sounding like Pat Morita on a tranquilizer binge.

The Hulk’s expression made it clear that he thought my response was insolent. “Where did you come from? How did you get here?” His tone made equally clear that he didn’t want more evasive answers.

I had no idea how far we were supposed to have traveled. And if we did come from far away, nobody mentioned how long distances were covered in Playland. I didn’t know if they traveled on horseback, through magic spells, by train, or borne aloft on the gossamer wings of fairy unicorns. Probably not the unicorns. That seemed a little fruity for ninjas.

“We, uh, walked,” I said. My companion was still silent.

The Hulk took another deep breath. He thought that we were defying him. And that just wouldn’t do at all. Our defiance was making him angry. And he was trying as hard as he could to emote that we wouldn’t like him when he was angry. “Then who let you into the settlement?”

That was anyone’s guess. We had just kind of showed up, and were told to put on dumb outfits and wander around. I guess that I could have remembered a few key people, so that I could name-drop about knowing Lord FakeReagent, or Prince MadeupName, but their aliases were too silly to keep straight. So I just tilted my head at him quizzically.

“Well, who took your papers?” It was the most important question that he asked, even if it made no sense to me. The Hulk wanted to know if we were registered characters, or if we were extras. If we had handed in a registration form, it was considered bad manners to attack us without provocation. But if we hadn't registered, then we were just extras furnished for the sole purpose of making him look effective in combat. And I still had no idea what he was talking about.

That’s when Fatbert saw that his dreams had come true. Not only was he the boss of a mob of tough fantasy bruisers, but now they had found targets. And when he figured it out, I’m pretty sure that he had to adjust his costume to mask an erection.

And that’s when someone hit me with a savage +5 tickle attack. A foam sword tapped me on both legs and one arm. The touches were so light, and so fleeting, that I thought it was one of those “what’s that spot? MADE YOU LOOK!” gags that are so popular with grade schoolers and the mentally enfeebled. So I stood there, trying to figure out what had just happened. My genuine puzzlement was interpreted as aloof indifference.

My assailant (a weedy looking fellow whose costume could generously be described as having been scavenged from the Hamburglar's laundry basket) took a step back as his eyes widened in horror. "He didn't take any damage!" Disbelieving murmurs rippled through the crowd, and the word "enchantment" was thrown back and forth as I realized that I had been attacked.

"Oh," I said, finally realizing what was going on, "ouch." I tried to make my knees buckle a little bit and hung my arm at my side in what I hoped looked like dead weight. I brought my foam sword up to defend myself, and was immediately charged by the Hamburglar, Fatbert, and three others, Drooly O’Headcase, A Very Special Elf, and Doug, the eternal virgin. Things looked grim.

The fighting itself is a blur. Since I was outnumbered 5 to 1, I spent the entire exchange in a defensive stance, backing up in the hope that I could break into a run and get the hell out of there. It didn't work. Instead, I ended up backing out of the clearing into a more wooded area with thick underbrush. That’s when they started yelling “Hazard! HAZARD!”

The word was supposed to warn me that I could hurt myself by tripping over a root or something, but what they really meant was “Step out from between the trees, because we spent months practicing the cool foam sword moves that we want to use to poke you to death. We can’t get enough clearance to use the Spinning Dragon Burn Scythe of Righteous Justice Strike (+2) over there. “

So I stepped back into the clearing and got killed. It was an experience that I could really have done without. That description applies equally to the whole time I was there, but something is particularly degrading about having to listen to the cheering and pant-hooting of a bunch of geeks convinced that overcoming you was a victory against a mighty foe who wasn’t completely outnumbered and explicitly told to lose to them beforehand.

I was able to leave a little later that day, less than 24 hours after I had arrived. I didn’t spend the full weekend with them, but I still had more than enough time to witness uncountable acts of stupidity and to collect a lifetime’s worth of shameful memories. By far the best part of going to the LARP weekend was the drive home.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Pilar

Our dog Pilar had mastered the art of raiding the table at an early age, and realized that she wanted more out of life. She couldn't leave it up to The Man to classify something as food, restricting herself to what society said was edible. So she broadened her horizons, eating things like balloons and rubber gloves. When brother wouldn't play catch with her, she ate his favorite computer game’s disk. And when she felt like having a snack, she'd eat matchbooks, pinning them between her paws and carefully licking the connected heads like an ice cream cone.

Eventually, she ate 5 ant traps in an afternoon. Mom had bought the traps along with a few other things that Pilar usually ignored, like lightbulbs, and thought that our dog could be trusted with them in the car for a few minutes. Pilar thought otherwise. Whether she consumed the traps in a fit of pique after being kept waiting for too long, or just satisfying her boundless epicurean curiosity, we'll never know. By the time mom got back to the car, the damage was done. The vet said that 3 can put a dog in a coma.

Pilar’s mealtime discipline was bad from the start. As the new dog in a house that hosted up to 7 children, Pilar received a lot of table scraps from fussy eaters desperate to clean their plates. My brother and I ate salad by eating the green stuff, and giving the red stuff to the dog. By the time our parents caught on, it was too late. Pilar had learned that not only was people food as edible as dog food, it was usually tastier. She silently vowed to include it in her diet whenever she could.

Pilar recognized that we could no longer help her, so she began to help herself. Our laps were at eye level, and usually draped with napkins. Napkins that ended up dirty. Like Dune’s sandworms detecting the slightest vibrations made by prey, Pilar sensed the subtle odors made by trace amounts of food. Our miniature Shai Hulud would rustle unseen under the table, visible only briefly as a flash of teeth claiming used napkins to be consumed at her leisure. From then on, napkins were kept out of reach, but I'm still clumsy at dinner. I need time to register that in Pilar's absence, anything placed in my lap will stay there. And I still want to warn friends not to put their napkins where the dog can get them.

As food sources became scarce, Pilar resorted to more drastic measures. She started begging for food, much the same way that pickpockets and muggers roam a city begging for wallets. She started innocently enough, staring at her mark in a mute yet adorably optimistic plea. Then she got impatient. Occasionally, she barked her displeasure. As she realized that food would not be offered, she decided that it must be taken. Her expression melted into calculated resolve as she formulated an attack strategy. And then she waited carefully for the split second of inattention in which she could launch her furry little Schlieffen plan. The instant that guards were down, she was up and on the attack. She would twist her neck to open her mouth horizontally, extending her range further, and moving her lower jaw clear to scrape plates clean with her teeth. From above, she looked like a hairy black pac-man streaking across the plates. She'd grab anything within reach, swallowing smaller items whole, and cramming everything else into her mouth, keeping at it until she was dragged away, chewing triumphantly.

After she chewed through her nylon collar, it was replaced by a chain that jingled merrily as she trotted around the house. It bound her body, but not her spirit. The giddy chiming of her new collar was an alarm, warning everyone to finish eating quickly, before she drew closer. Her black wagging tail, cresting gaily above the far edge of the table as she worked her way around the dining room, looked like nothing so much as a shark's fin prowling for its next meal. It added a sense of adventure to mealtimes.

But not many people recognized the warning signs. My friend Josh was visiting when my mother warned him not to let the dog eat his food. He made the mistake of turning his head towards her to ask for clarification. Mom had served from the left, and at that moment, Pilar came zooming in to remove from the right, ending up eyebrow-deep in food before Josh had any idea that something was wrong.

And so she chewed her way through life with gusto, eating food, household items, and the aforementioned 5 ant traps, which only gave her mild constipation. We tried to figure out the reason behind her miraculous survival after eating them, especially given the vet’s grim pronouncement. Maybe Pilar was impervious to damage of any kind? Maybe the traps were defective? Maybe the vet was thinking of a different, more lethal type of ant trap? Maybe the vet was an idiot. We reviewed all the possibilities carefully, and realized that given the evidence, there was only one conclusion at which any rational person could arrive.

It was pretty cool knowing that I had an indestructible superdog.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Cemetery Work

I needed a summer job when I was in high school, so I worked in a cemetery for a few months. It wasn't much different from any other landscaping job. Kind of like maintaining a golf course, only with more tombstones.

Most of the time was spent mowing the grass. If you were lucky, you got to mow the empty field that they had put aside for future development. That meant long stretches of time spent driving a rider mower in lines so straight that you could catch a quick nap before it was time to turn around and head back the other way. Every now and then you got to menace a groundhog, which would easily outrun the underpowered mowers in a kind of waddling hustle that still managed to express its contempt.

Avoiding the groundhog holes was vastly preferable to weaving around floral arrangements and those mini flags that members of the armed services get. You would have to steer the mower as close to them as you could, stopping every few feet to reach out and move one of them onto the grass that you had just cut. Then, at the end of the row you'd turn and mow the grass that you had just cleared of obstacles, stopping again every few feet to pick up the displaced items and put them back into their original positions. It was tedious and awkward, and since the front of the mower was much wider than the back, it was tricky to ride close enough to pick things up without getting so close that they got destroyed by the mower.

It was particularly rough with the little flags. The older ones had gotten yanked out of the ground and shoved back in so often that their stands were permanently bent. Over time, the bends got so severe that the holders angled out over the ground, with the flags almost touching the grass. You had to make wide detours to avoid clipping them, since it would have been a serious insult to the generations of brave men and women who gave their lives for our country if one of those drooping flags was accidentally sucked into one of the mowers. As weak as the mowers were, the flags were mass-produced and cheap, fixed to their posts with the most tenuous of bonds. It didn't take much suction to rip a flag clean off its mounting and send it flying through the whirling blades, to emerge out the other side as so much red, white, and blue confetti. So thank god it never happened, which is why no one needs to check the trash dump behind the machine shop to see if I tried to hide the evidence out there.

The machine shop was in the back of the cemetery, hidden in a bunch of trees behind the mausoleum. It was where we kept the digging equipment. Everyone pictures gravedigging work to be two guys with shovels working by lantern light under a full moon, like the science of body disposal reached its apex back in the fourteen hundreds. But trying to excavate almost 150 cubic feet of dirt unassisted is hard goddamn work. And just like any other business, there's a constant pressure to do things bigger, cheaper, and faster to make them more profitable. That's why the backhoe and the dump truck are the modern gravedigger's accessories, and the only time that people actually use picks and shovels is when they need to widen a hole but don't want to crack open a burial vault by mistake.

Burial vaults went into all the graves in the cemetery. They were thick concrete shells that were fitted over the caskets, supposedly to keep the earth from settling as the contents deteriorated. I was comforted by them. While the cemetery would be ground zero in the event of a zombie attack, I knew that the vaults would keep the undead in their place. And if zombies are able to punch through solid concrete before burrowing through six feet of packed earth, using nothing but their bare hands and a seething hatred for the living, then you don't need to look for a hiding place. Because there isn't one to be found.

But that was no reason to get complacent, and I always kept a weather eye open for the first signs of a zombie uprising. The job was pretty low-stress, but I had absolutely no desire to stay there after dark. And neither did anyone else that I worked with. I don't know where people got the idea that cemetery work is done at night. We just worked normal hours, from 8 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon, and didn't hang around at the end of the day. The only person crazy enough to do that was the guy who lived there.

As you can imagine, it's difficult to find a tenant for a house that's in a cemetery, which is why this particular house was leased out rent-free. Anyone could live there, as long as they could do two things. They'd have to mow their "front lawn" (the strip of grass between the house and the fence), and they'd have to ignore the fact that at any moment they could have their souls turned inside out or ripped to shreds by supernatural horrors from beyond the grave. The tenants got a place to stay, and the cemetery had someone on-site after hours if vandals or punk kids broke in and started screwing around.

The only time we ever saw the bodies is when other people came in and started messing with them. Like the time that somebody broke into one of the private crypts and left an arm in the bushes. The rest of the time, the job was just putting big boxes into bigger boxes and then dumping a lot of dirt onto them. When it comes to corpse exposure, cemetery work is probably the least unnerving of all the death services industries.

We never saw the bodies, and we never saw the mourners. Like shoe-cobbling elves, we did our work unseen, getting the blue-and-white pavilion ready for the service before disappearing back to the machine shop. We set up chairs, and did our part to make the grave look less like the yawning chasm of infinity that waits to swallow us all. This was accomplished with sheets of artificial grass, like those you find on mini golf courses, draped down the sides of the pit to disguise the bare soil. The steel sling that lowered the casket was placed on top of them, to keep them from slipping out of place. With the dirt from the excavation carted away in the dump truck, it looked like the grave was a natural formation that had always been there, and hadn't been slashed from the earth just that morning or the day before. Once everything was in place, we kept out of sight until the service was over and everyone was gone. Then we'd clean it all up, and fill in the hole.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Punched Monkey

I know someone who punched the monkey.

My coworkers are good people, but they're not too complicated. Code Red, Pepsi Blue, GoGurt, Liquid Ice, they'll try anything if it has enough buzz behind it. They’re a marketer's wet dream.

Mary is a coworker of mine who is particularly naive, a big fan of taking people at their word and acting without considering the consequences. One time she ended up homeless for a few weeks because she was promised that a gutted apartment would be totally refurnished in less than a month, and ready for her to live in. She had to move out of her old place at the end of its lease, and was supposed to move into the refurnished apartment the very next day. Strangely, when her move-in date arrived and the apartment still wasn’t ready, the realtor wouldn't return her calls and was never in the office when she stopped by. Imagine that.

Back in November, there was a bit of a gadget binge. MP3 players were the New Hip Thing. (hey, I never said that they were current with the trends, I just said that they followed them, which makes their behavior more touchingly tragic). At the same time that their eyes had been opened to the possibility of portable music without tapes or CDs, the Nano was causing a stir, and it was time to start thinking about Christmas presents. Maybe they wanted one of their own. Maybe they would be the perfect gifts for significant others. Maybe this time, after so many hollow promises and false hopes, an iPod would be the one thing that they had been searching for after all these years to make their empty lives complete.

That's when Mary got it into her head that she needed an iPod. I'll tell you right now that she needed an one like Bruce Campbell needs twenty pairs of sequined pink ballet slippers. This woman had no idea how an iPod worked. I don’t know if she thought that they magically picked up songs from the radio, or if you put songs on the iPod by rubbing it against a CD really hard, but she didn’t realize that you need to connect it to a computer to add a playlist. She barely grasped the idea that songs can be stored as MP3’s, and was stunned to find out that the iPod stored those MP3’s on a tiny hard drive. It's also worth noting that she never wore headphones, a walkman, or a portable CD player into work, but by god her life wouldn't be complete unless she had an iPod of her very own. And then she saw the link.

I don't know what it said. Probably something like "PUNCH THE LOW MORTGATE RATE TO GET HERBAL VIAGRAS FOR LESS! ALSO, IPODS!1!" Whatever it was, it said "free iPod," and that meant that she was going to get one.

My coworkers aren't complete idiots. And most of them knew that any company giving away iPods to everyone on the internet was going to end up bankrupt in five minutes. They knew it was a scam, and they all tried to talk Mary out of it. But Mary thought she was smarter than that. After all, they had to give out some iPods, right? They wouldn’t be allowed to put out false advertising, would they? Sure, they might not be giving out millions of them, but they had to give away at least one, or they’d be telling a lie. And if they did give one out, she was going to be the person who got it. Like some modern-day David, she'd take on this marketing Goliath, and wrest an iPod from them with her cunning wiles. She probably wouldn't even have to take her clothes off to do it.

Once she began her quest, she spent the rest of the afternoon handing over all of her personal information. Other people might have thought that it was risky, but she was going to beat the system. Name, age, address, date of birth, phone number, mother's maiden name, first pet’s name, number of felony convictions, favorite brand of peanut butter, there was nothing she wouldn't tell them in pursuit of her iPod. She applied for a credit card. She completed two marketing surveys. And she subscribed to three magazines. That’s when we told her that she was never going to see that iPod, but she didn't want to hear it.

The next day she came rushing in to work all excited. "Guess what, guys! I just got an e-mail confirming my order, and they're going to ship out my iPod! It should arrive in 4 weeks!" We used that opportunity to tell her again that she was never going to see that iPod.

A week or so after that, she brought in one of those massive packages from a CD club. The ones where they can’t just list the CDs for sale, they have to include tiny little pictures of the albums in case you shopped for music based on the pretty colors. She was supposed to pick her free CDs now, and sign up to buy additional CDs every month. It turned out that joining their club was part of the iPod application process. Hey, she'd need a bigger music collection since she was going to be able to listen to it anywhere, right? A few people had fun helping her pick out CDs, but most of us were asking when she was going to see that iPod.

"I'm serious guys, it's going to be here in 4 weeks," she insisted. As though repeating it often enough would make it true.

Eventually, I heard her spending another afternoon in pursuit of her iPod. This time she was on the phone. I guess that in addition to the magazines, and the CD’s, she had been enrolled in a few of those credit card programs.

They’re the programs where they charge you a monthly fee to watch your credit report, or to send you coupons for disounts, or to ensure that you'd be "protected" if you couldn't make your monthly credit card payments. They come up with new ways to scare you with tales of the Terrible Things that can happen to Unprepared People, and then they promise you that their program will be your one true light and salvation in these dark and turbulent times. Then they pretend that they’re making your life better while they keep charging you a substantial monthly fee. Mary was on the phone trying to cancel the programs before their free trial periods expired.

Have you ever tried to do that? It's like trying to win knife fight against a lawnmower. You can't just cancel, you have to tell them why you want to cancel. Then they tell you why the reason you just gave them was a bad one, and how you don't really want to cancel the excellent service that they're providing you. If you insist on cancelling without giving them a reason, they “have” to make you listen to a prolonged marketing pitch so that you'll find out about "all of the great features you'll be missing." But don’t blame them for it, it’s their civic duty. After all, they can't just let you cancel without considering all the useless crap that they're forcing on you, because letting you pass up such magnificent bargains would be like ripping you off! They think that if they talk long enough, you'll get so bored or confused that you hang up.

"When's the iPod getting here?" we asked Mary.

"Any day now. I'm serious, it's due to arrive sometime this week or next week! And I'll bring it in, and you'll all be jealous," she insisted.

Finally, she admitted that she had received one last e-mail regarding her iPod. It turned out that the credit card application she had filled out at the beginning of the whole ordeal had been rejected. As a result, she was no longer eligible to receive the free iPod, and her "order" had been cancelled. But thank god that all those things she had signed up for in the meantime had required an active credit card to enroll. Since she had put them onto one of her other cards while she waited for the new card's approval, they had a ready source of funding. She may not have gotten an iPod, but if she hadn't punched the monkey, she wouldn't have gotten such an up close and personal view of all the different customer service companies that were now charging her monthly fees.

I'd like to think that her experience made Mary a little more skeptical, a little less willing to expect something for nothing. Even if she is going on a "vacation" this weekend to listen to some company pitch her a timeshare.

But that's what happens when you punch the monkey.