Monday, January 19, 2015

I finally beat Zaxxon!

You might have heard about the Internet Arcade that Internet Archive fired up a few months ago.  All of those arcade games that we (or at least some of us) used to feed quarters into?  Well, almost 700 of them - as in the originals, not home console ports - are available to play for free in your web browser!  Which is a great thing because these games are a considerable part of computer technology history and Internet Archive is preserving them for posterity.

Well anyhoo, last week I visited Internet Arcade for the first time.  And something occurred to me: that maybe I could see if Zaxxon was in the collection.

Bit of info: Zaxxon was a game that Sega came out with in the early Eighties, and it's arguably the first video game to attempt a 3-D feel for the player.  As you fly your fighter jet/spaceship/thingy you can adjust the altitude, which you're gonna have to do because otherwise you'll smash into walls, energy barriers, homing missiles and the like.  The object of the game was to fly across one big space fortress loaded with obstacles, then a segment in space as you take on enemy planes, and then another fortress.  At the end of which is a robot that you have to destroy before it destroys you.

This is what Chris has been obsessed with
for more than thirty years.
The boy needs to get outside more.
That is Zaxxon.  And I had been trying to take out that @%#$ robot since 1983.  Except that I haven't even been able to approach the droid, much less shoot his missile-arm to make him self-destruct.

Well, Zaxxon wasn't very hard to find at all.  After going through the instructions on how to play through the emulator, and a few mis-steps that required restarting the game, I was finally off again.  It's been at least fifteen years since I've found a Zaxxon machine to play on, so I was a little rusty...

...but on my third try, I got through to the robot.  For the first time in my life I got to see it after getting to it with my own efforts.

He destroyed me.  I played through again.  Still got to him, this time he retreated off the screen.

It was on my fourth trip through the fortresses that I blew up the missile before he could fire it.

It had taken more than 31 years but at long last, I beat Zaxxon.

The game re-started after that, with more difficult fortresses to fly through.  More aggressive obstacles like rockets and turrets aiming at me.  But by that point, I didn't care.  I had destroyed the robot and that's all that mattered.

(There was a sequel, Super Zaxxon, that was much more difficult and had the robot replaced with a dragon.  I never found that game anywhere, much less played it.  The original classic is more than enough.)

Maybe this is a sign or an omen.  You remember how Mister Miyagi told Daniel in The Karate Kid that a man who can catch flies with chopsticks can do anything?  Well, that's what Zaxxon has been to me: a fly that I've been doing my darndest to snatch out of the air for more than three decades.  And now I've done it.  Perhaps it's an indicator of things to come.

Or perhaps it just means that I've been sadly obsessed with a video game for all this time...

Book update for mid-January

I think I'm getting back into the full swing of writing my book, at last.

I've completely re-written Chapter 1.  And I seriously hope that I'm not just seeing things but the more I read over it and how it flows into the rest of the manuscript, the better and better it's looking.  It sets up a much better tone for the book that follows.  It's more gripping.  It's more "me" than the original version was.  And that is what this project is about, isn't it?  Reaching deep down and translating my heart and soul and mind onto the printed page.  Being true to myself.  Sometimes that is going to hurt.  But there is also going to be a lot of humor too.

So the new first chapter is something I'm really stoked about more than I had become about the original.

The prologue has been somewhat re-written, but not drastically so.  I'm also looking for quotations to begin each chapter.  That... has proven to be a challenge.  With 21 chapters thus far however and only two of them lacking quotes, I've made progress but I'm also on the lookout for better ones.  Last night I did come across a quote that's perfect: it's a line from the classic novel A Canticle for Leibowitz.  Which is neat because that's one of my all-time favorite works of science-fiction.

Despite the lack of work on the narrative manuscript, I have still been writing the "interludes" as events pertaining to my manic-depression have warranted.  Last weekend was one such situation.  The interlude which resulted from it, if I'm allowed to keep it in the book, will probably disgust some people.  For what it's worth, it disgusted me.  This is a psychiatric illness, and it's not going to be pleasant no matter how much I might try to paint over it.  One of the reasons why I'm doing this book is so that it might evoke understanding about mental illness.  There are things which are extraordinarily rare in being discussed, and I'm going to delve into those.  Anyway, just going to let y'all know that there will be some harsh material in this, if it gets published.

I'm feeling better now.  The past two and a half months have been an experience which I would not wish on anybody.  There is still pain, still grief.  This weekend it was like I felt Dad's presence, encouraging me to continue with the book just as he cheered me on to begin it.  I'm not rushing into this: so many friends have discouraged me from charging headlong into writing it again.  I'm just letting things proceed as they should.  But it really does feel great to be back behind the keyboard again and writing something, for my book.

Last night I wrote two sentences for Chapter 22.  So it's off and running.  I'll try to write more today...

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Reidsville's $30,000 monument to madness

So my hometown of Reidsville, North Carolina has decided to ultimately remove a nationally-recognized statue with more than a hundred years of history, and let it instead be replaced with a horror straight out of H.P. Lovecraft...

"We'll tear your soul apart!"

Brief recap: almost four years ago the Confederate monument in downtown Reidsville was toppled and smashed by an errant driver.  The statue of the Confederate soldier atop the monument fell and broke into pieces.  The damage wasn't irreversible however, and it was determined that the statue and the monument could be repaired and restored to normal.
Reidsville's Confederate Monument
at it's original location

That's how things should have worked in a sane world.

But former dictator mayor James Festerman would have none of that.  On his own, Festerman decreed that the monument would never go back up.  That, despite a huge outpouring of support from the community for the Confederate statue to be repaired and returned to its rightful place.  Hizzoner Festerman declared that the monument was "controversial", nevermind that it had occupied the location sine 1910 and there had been no opposition to it in all of that time.  Festerman was just pulling that out of his [REDACTED].

So the "leadership" of the City of Reidsville had its way, and though the Confederate monument was eventually repaired it was relocated to a nearby cemetery.  In its place at the roundabout on Scales Street the city installed a wretchedly ugly planter and then for the past two years or so it's been a Christmas tree.

And now in place of the Confederate monument, the City of Reidsville has decided it will erect the eldritch abomination that you see above.  Allegedly a water fountain, the creator of which has titled it "The Bud".

More often than not it's being called "The Thing".  Local writers are describing it as something out of the Alien movie franchise (it definitely has that open-egg look going for it).  Or like a prop from a Clive Barker "Hellraiser" film.  I can't print what one person told me it looked like (it's that obscene).  I should recite incantations around it when it goes up and try to summon Cthulhu with it.

Incidentally, this "work of art" which looks like third-rate H.R. Giger is going to cost at least $30,000.

Generations to come should remember it as "Festerman's Fountain": a monument to the most indolent, apathetic, indifferent and tyrannical city government in Reidsville history (and that's saying something).

Seriously: twenty years from now people will be looking at that eyesore and wondering "what the #&@$ were they thinking?!"

Monday, January 05, 2015

Watch it now: the legendary CNN "end of the world" video

One of the things I've always wanted to do with this blog is post interesting stuff.  Or at least those things that are intriguing to me.  Admittedly, that has slacked off a lot in the past several months.  Between writing my book (a project that devoured most of 2014) and then Dad's passing a month and a half ago, this hasn't  been the best of times to even look for neat/odd material, much less post about it.  Maybe I can do better about that in the coming year.

And fortunately good friend Scott Kelly has come to the rescue with something to kick it off with:

Cue James Earl Jones voiceover: "THIS... was CNN."

I first heard weird stories about "the CNN doomsday tape" around the time of the Gulf War in 1991.  Allegedly, CNN founder Ted Turner has made a video that would be the very last thing that his cable news network would broadcast before the end of the world engulfed all of mankind in hellfire, brimstone, plague or zombie apocalypse.  The plan was that when the very last CNN employee was left alive in the building, the "play" button would be hit and this would be the final thing that whatever viewers were left would witness on CNN.

Turns out it's not so much a legend.  And CNN employees have known about it for years.  However, this is the first time that the video itself has found its way into public purview.

Jalopnik has a great write-up about Ted Turner's end-times CNN tape, which is still within the network's video archive listed as "TURNER DOOMSDAY VIDEO" under strictest orders that it not be broadcast "till end of the world confirmed".  Included in the article is the video itself: of a military band playing "Nearer My God To Thee".

In a really odd way it reminds me of the night of 9/11.  My best friend was working in the CNN Building in Atlanta at the time, and all evening we were talking back and forth on AOL Instant Messenger.  It was really something to be hearing directly from the bowels of what was almost certainly the most-watched news network in the world at that moment.  I've still got the log of that IM session somewhere.

I once heard that Orson Welles had recorded a radio broadcast meant for the end of the world.  But I haven't been able to find anything about that.  Perhaps some reader of this blog will be able to enlighten me more about that.

Anyway, it's a good article.  Well worth reading if you're into matters of technological history.  Which is curious in this matter in that the video is still in 4:3 aspect ratio at standard definition, so if you don't have a high-def set you can still watch CNN cover Armageddon.

EDIT 6:47 p.m. EST:   I've watched this video a few more times and the more I think about it, the less funny it seems.

Consider: this tape was made in 1981.  Kids today don't realize how SCARY things were back then, at the height of the Cold War and the fear that any moment there would be nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviets.  1983 seems especially vivid: when the Russians shot down the South Korean airliner and then not long after when the TV movie The Day After aired.  The policy of mutually-assured destruction meant that both sides understood that an attack by one superpower would mean the destruction of each nation and with that it would almost certainly be the end of all civilization, everywhere.

We lived.  We laughed.  We had babies.  But above it all there was a lingering fear that somehow or another, The Button would be pressed by one side or the other and the biblical end times would be upon us just like that.  I was at a Christian school at the time and with few exceptions there was an air of paranoia among the faculty: as if it had to be drilled into our heads that Russia was the tool of Satan eagerly waiting to unleash an unholy salvo against America so we'd better "get right" with God before it was too late.

That was years before I came to understand that we enter into a relationship with God because we want to, not because we are forced into it by others.  But I digress...

So yeah: we went about our lives.  All the while knowing that nuclear war could erupt and that would be the end of everything.

Bearing that in mind, I could easily envision a scenario where before the bombs hit, a CNN employee might actually get confirmation that the nukes were inbound and that the network really was "signing off" for good.

So that said, this really is a fascinating and legitimate artifact of the 1980s.

EDIT 7:07 p.m. EST:  Maybe I should do something like that for this blog.  Like, have a YouTube video embedded in a post ready to be deployed for when the nukes fall or the undead overwhelm us all.  Or at least a "final post" that friends will unload upon my demise.  What do y'all think?

Friday, December 26, 2014

A joyful Christmas despite myself

Here I am, the day after Christmas 2014.  And I'm only writing this because a lot of people were praying for me yesterday, that I might get through this holiday.

Grief is hard enough already.  It's especially heartbreaking when it comes so close to the holiday season and you see that empty chair at the table.  It's not something that I haven't experienced already.  Mom passed away three days after Christmas three years ago, and because of that there was already a shadow cast over Christmas and New Year's.  On my 26th birthday we buried my grandmother: something that I'm always reminded of on that day of the year.

This year has been more excruciating than anything I was prepared for.  Because it's so fresh.  Because it's only now sinking in that Dad is gone and is not coming back, no matter how many times I keep expecting him to come through that door every morning, or whenever I see his truck parked at home and find myself thinking that he's inside playing with our dog.

For the several days and maybe a week and a half before Christmas, I was doing pretty well.  Our theatre guild was in the midst of its production of It's A Wonderful Life: The Musical and being around so many people - people who I have worked with before and people who I only now have had the pleasure of making friendships with - was a pick-me-up that I sorely needed more than I'd realized.  And then the show ended this past Sunday and just like that the joy began leaving me.

Let me be more succinct: I knew what was coming and I did not want to have to go through it.  But Christmas was coming, and I had to bear it.  I'm not the only one going through this either: two very dear friends and their family are also going through this holiday season without their mother, a wonderful woman who passed away a month before Dad did.

Tuesday was hell.  Christmas Eve I was assaulted with a lot of thoughts that I cried to God to please take away.  Thoughts about Dad.  Thoughts about being alone, not in the "no friendships" way.  It has been my dream to be a husband and a father for so very long and only now have I been able to reach a state of mind that could let me have that... but I've missed a decade and a half of life because of mental illness and having that happiness seems further away than ever.

It has been a hard thing to be without Dad in other ways too, because he really was supporting me as I wrote my book.  I lost a lot of dependable work this past spring because of an extended bout of severe depression - enough to keep me from writing a word for a major project - and I've been struggling ever since to make up for it.  For now, let's just say that I'm scraping by.  But in a very weird way, I'm thankful for where I am at the moment.  It has re-taught me about the things that do matter most in life.  I am realizing more than before that for all of my circumstance right now, that I am better off than a lot of people who suffer from mental illness.  I may not be where I want to be, but God is providing for me and I'm not having to go hungry.  It is teaching me to rely on God more than I ever have before, and I am thankful for that.

I had no idea that poverty could be so much fun!

(Okay, forget I said that.  It's NOT exactly "poverty".  A tremendous lack of previous resources perhaps, yes... but I'm eating and get to stay warm at night and have a roof over my head: something that too many people in this world can't get to say that they have.)

All of those regrets and more came upon me on Christmas Eve and I desperately wanted to flee them.  I took my medication early that night and tried to go to sleep.  It only lasted until 1 in the morning, at which point I took MORE medication and tried to let it work.  By 8 it was clear that nothing had worked.  Only breakfast at my aunt and uncle's place at 9 brought direly-welcomed respite from the sadness and despair.  I got to have a little Christmas after all.  In fact, it was a Christmas that will go down as one of the most memorable of my life.

Then I came home and took even more medicine and crawled into bed and curled up in the fetal position and waited for the day to end.

I don't know what made me wake up at 4 in the afternoon.  Maybe it was Tammy - my dog - scratching at the door to go out for "relief".  I took her out and when I came back the urge to talk to someone... to anyone... overwhelmed me.

I went on Facebook and asked people to please hold me up in prayer right then, because I was needing it.  And then I spent the next three and a half hours on the phone talking to some especially close friends.

And after that, I came away feeling the most uplifted, encouraged and spiritually renewed than I have been since well before Dad died.

One friend, someone who is as close to me as a sister, told me something that I hadn't thought of: that Dad and Mom were having their first Christmas together in three years.  And that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus and that now Mom and Dad get to celebrate Christmas in the presence of Christ Himself.  She also told me something else: that Heaven really is closer to us than we realize.  We just can't see it with eyes on this earthly shore.  But our loved ones are there, they really are.  Which is funny, because a second friend shared that same thought with me just as many weeks ago.

During a conversation with another friend, he shared an essay with me, about grief during Christmas time, and a reminder that though we may grief, our grief is not that of this world.  Still another friend reminded me that I am unbelievably blessed with friends and family... and friends who are close as any family can be.  As Clarence Oddbody told George Bailey: a person with friends is far richer than anything that money can provide on this earth.

That's something too.  I had found myself asking God to please show me that my life did have purpose and meaning, that despite how things have gone that I might have a wonderful life.  I had secretly hoped for some direct message from Him.  In the end God didn't send a "second class angel" at all.  He sent people who are so very dear and precious to my heart, and in their own way they each helped to convey the precisely right message that I needed to hear.

Yesterday evening I ended up feeling joy and contentment and peace that I had not thought possible.  I felt cheered-up enough to spent the rest of the night comforted by the peace of God, that surpasses all understanding.

I even felt cheered-up enough to do something that earlier in the day I did not have any interest in at all: watching this year's Doctor Who Christmas special.  I'm glad that I did.  "Last Christmas" was like John Carpenter's The Thing meets Inception meets Miracle on 34th Street with a little dash of Alien.  Solid entertainment courtesy of the Doctor Who franchise.  I needed that too.

I let the rest of the night go on as I let the feeling of Christmas joy wash over me, and linger past midnight.  Then I went to bed, but not before thanking God for bringing me through the grief and letting me have joy on this holiday: joy that I hadn't ever expected and will remember for the rest of my life.

Let me put it this way: this Christmas was a Christmas of miracles for me.  I couldn't have gotten through it without the prayers of a lot of amazing people.  And I could not have come through it without God providing friendships and family who lifted me up exactly as I needed for them to do.  There have been a lot of instances this past month and more that I have seen timing happen in ways that can only be described as perfect.  Some of those involved loss.  This time, it was timing that led to me gaining something.  Something that aroused a greater faith in God than I had been prepared for.  That it came just in time for Christmas was the proverbial cherry on top.

Dad would want me to have been happy this holiday, even without his presence at the breakfast table yesterday morning.  He would want me to go on with my life, and to be happy and to keep finding happiness.  My friends encouraged me to know that there is still plenty of time to have the happiness that I have dreamed of having for so long... and I believe them.  One of these years, in the not too distant future, I hope that will be me sharing photos on Facebook of my children having Christmas morning.  I long to see Christmas through their eyes, just as Dad saw it through those of my sister and I.

This, was a far better Christmas than I was ready to be blessed with.  I don't think that would have been possible without some of the despair and depression that I went through on the way to it.  Maybe that is God's timing too: that I might have a lot of sadness before I could appreciate the joy.

I like to believe so.

This was one of the best Christmases that I've ever had.  I don't know how those in years to come will compare, but this Christmas is forever going to be part of me that I will take with me always.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I must go.  There is a handsomely-endowed gift card for Barnes & Noble in my possession that is screaming to be put to good use this afternoon :-)