Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Rubber Ball in a Tile Bathroom

"A rubber ball bounced high in a tile bathroom." That's what Grady Lee Nutt called one of his friends in a comedy skit. I can relate. Take a look at the comedy ramblings of Robin Williams, and you can almost see his brain bouncing around in his head, cultural and historic references combining as atoms do in a super-collider. I'd love to see his dreams, if his brain is that active, it would be a thrill indeed to see what is mind comes up with when all barriers are taken down. Dennis Miller is another example. The only problem with him providing insight on MNF was that his comparisons were so far above those of the average football watcher.

You can go to any website about ADD and find a list of the most important and intelligent people who were said to have the condition (I say condition because "disorder" is too negative, and "disease" is outrageous), from Einstein to Mark Lowry. I wonder if it's a natural side effect from increased brain chemicals and firing neurons that keep a brain working and making connections. Maybe we work our brains so hard that it has to stop and reset sometimes. Like a person with high blood sugar, the lows needed to balance the highs are sometimes not pleasant.

I know from personal experience what living with ADD is like. I'll be walking along, taking a customer to a book, and by the time I get to where I'm going, I've forgotten the title. Or keeping a checkbook. You can ask the bank, which has gotten filthy rich over my transgressions on that subject. My mom found a report on a prominent ADD website that showed how people with ADD could not handle money, or credit, well at all. It was (and has been) a constant struggle. Possibly because anything that keeps us from reaching our goals and dreams is quite easily ignored. Of course, that does not rid ourselves of those obstacles, it just keeps us from seeing them until it's too late. Then there's the depression and lethargic moments, the need to eat to keep up energy, the times when the mind is doing backflips, but the body is tired (Lowry).

But the advantages of having ADD far outweighs the negatives. I can memorize large amounts of data, inventory stock, and the like. I can pull out information that has been lying dormant in my head for years, and surprise everyone while watching Jeopardy. I sincerely believe that ADD is simply a state of a brain adapting to the massive amounts of stimuli that this world throws at us everyday. The people that can hadle it become productive members of society. Those that can't, well...

Actually, though, I wanted to talk about those highs and lows. Modern Psychologists would say that the best thing for people to do is to keep things in moderation. Keep everything level, and the doctors are quick to give people medicine to help them do just that. I am not dissing Prozac. It's my friend and helps me to keep the lows a little less frequent. But I feel sorry for the people who have zombied themselves into a state of banality. Without the need to experience those highs, nothing worthwhile can be reached. No goals, no dreams, no joys or sorrows. And then what is your life like? One could spend a whole lifetime traveling roads with no hills, no valleys, as straight as the plains of Kansas, and they would see nothing and experience nothing. But the traveler standing on the heights of the world, as in the Caspar David Fredrich painting (see my "About Me" part of Myspace), or the monk looking out at the vast seascape and looking up at the sky and feeling insignificant, as in another Friedrich painting, would experience joys and despair, but would be experiencing something. Would you have died, not having lived?

There is more about this subject, examples in literature, contemporary culture, etc... but I'll let that go for another day. I just finished reading Dove by Robin Lee Graham, and I'll want to do a short review of that next. Wonderful book.

[Addendum: After a not so good night sleep, my brain reached into the filing cabinets and realized that I had quoted Nutt wrong. The proper quote is: "A golf ball hit full swing in a tile bathroom." But the title image works as well. I love those bouncy-ball things you get from grocery store vending machines. Mine always wound up bouncing behind the washer and dryer. ]

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Video Game Review: _Psychonauts_

I've never understood many of the games that are currently popular for the different console units. The most popular games fail to ignite any spark of interest in me. Take for instance, the Halo series (or most any other 1st person shooter games). As a stand alone game, the plots are usually simplistic and copied ad nauseum from every other game (and usually involve Nazis. Why does every video game have to involve Nazis?). As for multi-player, it's basically a shooting free-for-all. My hand-eye co-ordination is terrible, and so I'd rather watch my brother, who can find a moving pixel way off in the corner of the screen and shoot at it, hit it, and find out it was an enemy. The same goes for MMORPGs, like Ultima Online or WOW, which is basically hack and slash computer games (but I've ranted about that prior to this.)

The games I like best are those that have characters that are believable and those that I can get emotionally attached to (like one would a character in a book or a TV show.) The latest game that I've fallen in love with is Psychonauts. The overall idea of this game is that sometime in the far past, a meteor of a certain element (psitanitum, I think) crashed into the mountains. Indians used this metal to make arrowheads, but the main side-effect of the element was to enhance psi-powers in human beings. To some, it made them insane, but in others, it helped enhance natural born abilities. On top of this camp, the Psychonauts, or special agents trained to use those abilities to stop crime, made their base, and also a summer camp to help train kids to use their powers and one day become psychonauts themselves. The game involves going into people's brains and figuring out what makes them tick, their fears, their "mental baggage" as it were. By doing this, the insane can be made better, and the evil can be rid of the causes that made them that way. Into all this, Raz, the main character, runs away from the circus where he grew up and crashed into camp.

The game is animated in a unique way. It reminds me of the ending credits of Series of Unfortunate Events or even the illustrations in the books. The music, orchestrated with clarinets and harmonicas, is at once relaxing and unnerving, especially inside the brains of the insane, where a person who thinks he's Napoleon would have a soundtrack of the French National Anthem playing...over and over again. In some cases, I could not finish the level without turning the volume off, it got so bad (but that's the exact effect they were going for.) It's almost worth keeping the game installed after you beat it, just to hear the music and to play around in the campground area, to talk with all the campers and hear them discuss their crushes, their neuroses..etc...

I found (except for one major exception) each area to be perfectly made, difficulty wise, annoying only for short periods, and ultimately gratifying. The one exception being right before the last boss, where there is an area of fenced nothings with fire in it, that you must climb while water is rising fast, and someone is throwing missles at you. Oh, and you can't swim (the fact that he can't go into the water is very easily explained, an exception to most games, where the water is off limits for some unknown reason). In fact, this one place was so hard, I couldn't get past it. Fortunately, with only the main boss ahead, I skipped ahead to the last movie, post beating the bad guy, to finish the game (which is why I say I 'finished' the game, not that I 'beat' it.) The storyline is the most important, not that the impossible is achieved (the same thing I did in American Mcgee's Alice, a wonderful game, and much like Psychonauts actually.

What amazes me is how well thought out the game actually was. Each character was fully developed, each plot line fully realized. The intricate detail in etching the past lives of the neurotic, the way that each person's mind was developed into an explorable and amazing world, everything was created as an artist would create a masterpiece. I was utterly involved with the whole plot, with the characters, and found each level and situation to be unique and enthralling. From the dance club scene, to Lungfishopolis, to the Artist's paint world where the dogs that played poker sell paintings off the street. There's not been a game made before or since that offered such variety of universes.

I only hope that they make a sequel, for it was a magnificent game, worthy of a follow up. Oh, and as an addendum, you must read Trent's The Mysterious Benedict Society, and Richard M. Koff's Christopher as related books to this game. They both reminded me so much of the game, and vice versa.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

French Fries cooked in Lard (or making bad food good for you.)

Sitting at lunch today, eating my Hot Pockets (that's what Bruce calls me, Hot Pockets, cause that's what I always eat. I can just imagine Yoda saying, "How you become strong eating this? (or something like that)), I glanced over at the Papa John's Pizza boxes sitting next to me (why don't they pick Pizza Hut? It's always Papa John's, and it always tastes like cardboard, with garlic sauce, which is the only redeeming quality.), and noticed the saying, "All Papa John's Pizzas have 0 Trans-Fats!" I immediately launched myself into a tirade to the first person I saw, which was Andrew, about the criminal act of making bad food good for us.

Remember when McDonald's french fries were so irresistible? That's cause they were cooked in lard, or as bad as an oil as you can get. I look at it this way. We have a choice. We can eat healthy and live long time, or we can enjoy ourselves, carve a few years off of the end, when we will be senile, bitter fools in nursing homes, and enjoy the passage of time, as James Taylor once sang. God gave us free will. A choice between Eden and the Apple of Knowledge and a lifetime of work, labor, and self-awareness. He gave us the choice to choose what is best for us, or to travel down other roads.

So when it comes to Fast Food restaurants, they should know very well and good that a person coming into, say, a McDonalds, and wants to order a double-quarter pounder with cheese and supersize the fries thank you very much is not going to care about whether or not his fries are cooked in non-trans-fat oil or not. He wants them to taste good. And if you poor salt on them, they taste okay, because all you can taste is the salt. But the taste of fried goodness is all gone, because they are trying to make bad food good for you.

What really irks me is that the restaurants don't actually care about the need to make you healthy. They are afraid of lawsuits (such as those that have already been dismissed), or of government legislation that will forbid or outlaw the businesses from making money. Such has recently been enacted by the liberal legislature of the City of Los Angeles, which has denied any fast food chains from building in certain lower socio-economic areas of the city. The reasoning is that poorer people would rather spend the dollars on a double cheeseburger than they would on healthy food. The studies indicate that poor people are obese. Now, while I could spend all day showing how real poor people couldn't be obese because they would not have any food to begin with (i.e. Africa, parts of Asia...etc.), I will settle instead on looking at the ideological basis on which they made the law.

The Democrats in the legislature have determined that poor people obviously can't spend their money correctly, nor can they have the self-discipline to eat healthy, so the government has decided to make the decisions for them. The government has no right to interfere in the private lives of it's citizens (see numerous blogs about Libertarianism prior to this), and if they want to line up inside of a Mcdonalds and gain weight to the moon, it is their choice. Even to be indirectly influencing the businesses to make things healthy goes against the free market system. If Mcdonald's french fries taste better cooked in lard, and will make them more money, then they should cook them in that manner. I won't buy french fries from them anymore, because they taste awful. And therefore they are losing money from me, and probably from more than just me.

So let us eat our fatty foods, and let us drink our high-calorie drinks, and know that we probably won't live as long, but it's our choice to do so. I know that in a past blog, I have referenced Mike Huckabe's book Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork where he says that we are all slowly committing suicide, and I understand that point. But I also know that it's our fundamental right to choose to do that if we want to. Now....where'd I put my Coke???

As an addendum, I came home and flipped on the Internet, and the first thing that I saw on Yahoo was an article talking about what Michael Phelps craved after winning his 8th gold medal. The answer.... junk food. Even the most fit person on the planet will want bad food. Of course, he deserves it. :)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Book Review: _The Mysterious Benedict Society_ by Trent Stewart

Children's books recently have created themselves in the weird, almost macabre fashion of Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events. The characters are illustrated in ways that make them seem strange, almost as if Picasso had written a children's book, and populated it with his figures. And sometimes the stories are worthless (I found the Lemony Snicket books to be dull and sarcastic). And to go back another step in the oddity that is children's literature, you have to return to the works of Roald Dahl. Again, it is a mixture of the delightful and creepy, blended together to make an engaging and interesting read. I found James and the Giant Peach to be wonderful, but I kept wanting the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to be much more like the first movie, where Willy Wonka was more an eccentric grandfather than a pedophiliac character.

And so it is that I highly recommend The Mysterious Benedict Society, a superb first work by Trent Stewart. It reads much like a Roald Dahl book that inspires to be at once The Phantom Tollbooth and old episodes of Scooby Doo. Orphans are recruited by an eccentric and kindly man to help fight a similar man in an evil school bent on world conquest. Mr. Curtain (the bad guy) does this by mind suggestion, through hypnosis and mind altering machines that can enhance memories or wipe them out. The four children (with the main protagonist Raynie) must infiltrate the school, get close to the headmaster, and stop his plan. Adults will find the references to modern day society to be oddly discomforting, as if some of what the book is talking about is actually happening. The interesting thing about the antagonists is that their motives are ones that, in today's society, would not be considered all that bad. The double meanings and Catch-22 ideas that float throughout the books make perfect since to us, but to a child, would be some sort of terrible lie.

The most interesting thing about this book is that after I started reading this book, I started playing Psychonauts on my computer. The book and the video game (which I will review next) goes hand in hand with each other, in illustrations, in plot points.... it's almost like they were made to compliment each other. If you liked this novel, you must play Psychonauts, and vice versa.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Physical Expression of Mental States

I'm sure that this has some psychological terminology, but I'm not sure what it would be called, so I'm calling it a physical expression of a mental state. Of the people that I have seen where I could tie in something that they do to a mental state, it's been one of cleaning or throwing away things. One of my former managers had this need to throw things away when things were stressful, or when the back room got so where she couldn't stand to be back there. I had to go dumpster diving many times to get things that I wanted. She threw away my salt and pepper shakers that I brought for my lunches. Frustrated me no end.

My grandmother has a similar thing. I say jokingly that she believes that the more she gives away, the closer she'll get to Heaven. And while I'm sure that some of that has to do with the attention and pleasure she gets for giving things to people (ADD runs in the family), I think that also it is a way of cleaning out her mind by cleaning the physical space in which she lives.

And honestly, I think that whatever chemical states an ADD person has inside their head, it is somewhat similar to other states, like OCD, where physical actions often mirror a mental state. Now, I have no problem with the space I live in, namely my room, for that can stay messy or not, and it won't get cleaned till I've had enough from trying to find my fingernail clippers, or some such item. But at work, I do feel that the chaos that is created by customers (and working in retail will naturally cause that chaos, it is pleasing to provide a bit of order to the areas that I work in, namely the children's section, by creating a display, or deep cleaning something, so that everything is amazingly organized. I just have to delude myself from the fact that it might not stay that way for too long.

And on a related note, the displays that please me most are ones that are robust in color, energetic in motion, and catching to the eye. I think that we all must think in these ways, or paintings by Van Gogh would mean nothing, and the color red would be just another light when you come to an intersection. The Jungian types, or symbols (which come from Plato's forms) prove that those colors, those ways of thinking, are embedded into our sub-conscious. Thus soft blues and greens are soothing (such as the ones I use for my myspace page), and deep and rich colors like purple are meant to cause awe and admiration (although purple also had another use in the past, as a color for sickliness (an ironic use, since purple has always been a color for royalty.)

I think that the two ideas are related, because the physical world, whether sitting in a doctors office and being soothed by the colors and the atmosphere of the room, or cleaning a place in order to calm the mind, must be brought to order by our own minds. And while medications will help us in times when nothing can soothe us, a clean room, or a soft hue, or music (which I didn't go into), will do a lot toward softening the cahos in our minds. Finally, I also think that writing like this also does that, to bring order to my mind when thoughts are swimming about. This is an easel which words are the paint, to use a metaphor. It's why I so strongly believe in everyone having a journal, especially kids. The $2.99 journals at Borders right now are among the greatest gifts that anyone can give a child.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Breaking Dawn Party

Last night we had a wonderful book release party for Breaking Dawn, the forth novel in Stephenie Meyers' series of young adult vampire romance novels. Honestly, I could care less about the books themselves. It's not my thing. I mean, nowadays, you have to be undead to be popular in a book. I like my main characters to actually be alive. And have some sort of a tan. But the girls all went nuts over it, wearing their costumes and t-shirts and the like. What impressed me the most was the individual efforts of all the employees at the Borders I work for. Everyone (it seems, except me) worked amazingly well to put on a party for the people that were there. I hope they won't mind me giving them kudos here, cause they deserve it. Everyone put the pieces in place. Brad thought carefully about putting a soundtrack together to put on the sound system, and did a great job in capturing teen angst with the romance that must necessarily come with it. Della deserves a medal, for her fortune telling skills that started at the Harry Potter events have carried over, and she had people waiting in line for her even after the book came out. She had to think on her feet for hours, giving "fortunes" out and counseling people. I've never been so impressed with an activity at any event I've been to than hers. We had our bouncers that could silence the crowd with a holler (and Stephen is used to doing that, having worked with church groups..etc..), and Jess and Stephanie worked those debates around subjects that could have gotten a little touchy. But also I was impressed with the corporate office, for planning a party that actually worked really well. I commend them for being able to know what events would draw the crowd into the event, making them as enthusiastic for a book as they would be for a Jonas Brothers concert.

A couple of things I'd like to note, as I was searching the internet this morning for ideas for the third Eragon book coming out this September (20th). A blog I saw noted that the hype for this book seemed manufactured, as if the book companies were trying to capture the essence of the Harry Potter phenomenon. She noted from people she talked to that the crowd was maybe 1/4th of the crowd from the last Harry Potter. And people got upset with her for saying it. The comments were highly critical. But when you look at the events through the eyes of a businessmen, those two things are exactly what you'd hoped for. Yes, there is a need to capture the essence of HP and bring it forward, to continue the love of reading and the event planning that goes with it beyond just Rowling's work. And while the crowds might not be as large, it makes sense, to have picked out 3 to 4 books a year that might garner 1/4th of the crowd of an HP party, and to boost revenue by that much. In these economic times, this is an essential part of the business done outside of the holiday season. It's what Gamestop does for the Madden games, or GTA4. And it works. Because if you can convince people that it's just not a book, but an event, then they will come, and spend money at the cafe, and spend money on other books, and nicknacks, and it will increase profits while getting children or adolescents to read, which will insure the bookstore profits for years to come. It's not a bad thing, it's good business.


I talk about a lot of things on here. Business, philosophy, books, etc... and I don't really go into my private life all that much (mainly because I don't have much of one.). I think that when it comes to what I've been doing recently, it's been getting up, eating, going to work, coming home, going to bed...repeat ad nauseum. And sometimes work gets me frustrated, that responsibility and happiness seem to always be at odds with each other. I sometimes feel that if I just stood at the registers and didn't make any decisions other than run the programs that are normal for a retail worker, then I would be happy . Because the peons don't have to decide, they just have to "do," like the drones on a Borg ship. But the goal in life is to climb that power pyramid, to attain responsibility, to become a part of something bigger than yourself. And that's what I want to do at Borders, to help people find joy in reading, to make a profit for a company I believe in (whether other people do or not), and to enjoy myself while I'm doing it. But sometimes it gets hard, for whatever reason, and I find myself wondering if just scanning groceries would be better. And I know that's not true. It's what the Buddhist monk said in the Monkees' movie Head "for where there is clarity, there is no choice...and where there is choice, there is misery." To be able to make decisions, to have any type of responsibility at all, makes it harder to just "do your job" and to not have any stress about it. But to just "do your job" is not enough, not for me anyway. I want to make the Children's section beautiful, an event, as it were, for families to shop and to enjoy themselves while they are there. I want to see the store clean and ready to have readers come in and browse the shelves with confidence that they can find the inspiration they're looking for, especially in these times. But all those desires cause stress, because often, in the reality that naturally comes with working a retail job in these times, nothing can be perfect.

Why am I saying all this? Because there has to be something more. And this is going to sound cliched, and goes back to time immemorial. I think of Voltaire's Candide when, at the end, they must till their gardens, and that true happiness can never be found. And while I see the logic in this, I have to reject it. If one must search the whole Earth over to find happiness, and fail in his attempt, then let it be so, for it is the journey that is important, not the end result. And further in Goethe's Faust where the doomed doctor wishes for knowledge, and in searching for power and happiness in every form, he finds that the one thing that tethers him back to reality is the love of a girl. We must work, we must search, and toil, and strive, and never yield (thanks Ulysses), and even if we never find happiness, if we never find love, then so be it. But it will be in the journey that we construct a life for ourselves. And in the love that we give, may we find that we have given someone else a moment of happiness to carry themselves on. We have to carry on. It's all we can do. But that is enough.

Friday, August 1, 2008


Headline News was gushing about JT, and they were saying that it was a shame that Jay Leno had already given (forcibly) the Tonight Show job to Conan O'brien. Which got me to thinking... there are a number of TV shows that deserve to have the correct replacements (and most have been filled by the wrong people.)

Late Night Talk Shows: Okay, so Jay is leaving. And frankly, I'm counting the days for that to happen with as great anticipation as the Democrats are waiting for GWB to leave. It hasn't always been that way, however. Jay Leno used to be a very entertaining and worthwhile replacement for Johnny Carson. He maneuvered the rivers of post 9/11 American airwaves with skill (mostly with the help of Arsenio Hall, who was amazing), and it was a time when my mom and I actually looked forward to watching the monologue each night before I went to bed, especially during my teaching years, which was a nightmare. It was good to laugh those days. But sometime afterward, the executives at NBC decided that Leno needed to abandon his Conservative leanings (he only half-heartedly picked on GWB, and focused more on the Democrats in the news) and his writers started making jokes that put down the Republicans. Either it was a change in writers, or Leno just didn't care anymore, but now there are few good jokes, a whole lot of filler, and fewer laughs from the households. We turn on Leno only because we can be doing other things while waiting for Conan to come ..wards.

So Conan is going to take over June 1st, 2009. Can't wait. I wonder what they're going to do with the set, with Kevin (who deserves special note, because without him, Leno would be barely watchable), with Max Weinburg (sp) (who deserves to go with Conan, since he is as much of Conan's act as Kevin is for Leno.), and more importantly, who they're going to use as Conan's replacement. They've announced that SNL alumni Jimmy Fallon is going to take over there, which is good. It leaves Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on the Comedy Central channel, making tons of money to stay where they are, I'm sure. The only other person I'd like to see there would be Justin Timberlake, and maybe he'll do that, in 10 years or so after his sex symbol status wears off (see prior blog).

TPIR: But the choice was wrong. Bob Barker made The Price is Right. And when he retired, it was the same as Johnny Carson leaving his show. So it was up to CBS to find a replacement, and the field was wide open. You know who they picked, and it was a bad choice. Drew Carey should have stayed on Whose Line.. and done what he's definitely good at. My choice would have been either Marc Summers (sp), of Nickelodeon's Double Dare fame, and more recently of Food Network's Unwrapped, or John O'Hurley, who is an animal lover himself and has hosted Family Feud for a few years. His personality was perfect, his mannerisms almost exactly like Barker. The old saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." was so blatantly ignored here. Now I don't even watch TPIR anymore, and I watched it religiously before that. (I did a prior blog on this some time ago...)

Brett Farve...has lost his mind. He was a legend up in Green Bay, and now he's nothing more than a nuisance. And yes he'll be in the Hall of Fame some day, but right now the Packers are trying to pay him not to play. He's the joke line of the Espys, of Sportscenter every night, and it used to be that Farve was looked up to as a legend. Now he's ridiculed, and it shouldn't be that way. Aaron Rodgers (his replacement) deserves better than the treatment he's getting.

And speaking of football...legend John Madden, now making millions off his cursed EA sports game (poor Farve, the curse strikes again), will at some point leave MNF (now SNF) and leave NBC looking for a replacement. It either has to be a coach, or a player. In the coach ranks, rivals Barry Switzer and Jimmy Johnson come to mind (although Fox will probably not let Johnson go.), and for players, how about Farve? Naahh... but there is one person who would be perfect, if he doesn't decide to become an actor afterward. Put Payton in after he retires, and his mind could dissect plays just a easily as John Madden could in his prime, before he went senile.

I'm sure there are a lot more "Replacement" issues I could bring up, but I'll leave it at that for now. It's all fluff anyway. :)