Monday, September 27, 2004

Requiem for a Pac-Man

In the mid-1970s a man named Nolan Bushnell changed the world when he convinced a bar to let him put in a coin-operated video game. The game was Pong, and players turned knobs to bounce a square “ball” back and forth on a blank screen. After a couple of days, the owner called him to complain that the game appeared to be broken. It turned out the game was full of quarters. Soon he formed a company to produce video games. Originally it was called Syzygy, which no one could pronounce or spell. Rechristened Atari, the company exploded overnight in the late 70s, and Bally-Midway and others rushed to meet Atari’s success. By the mid-80s arcades had replaced skating rinks as the place to spend your allowance.

Arcades have devolved a great deal since their heyday in 1983. Boys from 10—18 flocked to these dark chambers, illumined with the warm glow of monochrome and color screens and ringing with the cacophony of music, lasers, and synthesized voices that taunted you: “Bad move, Space Cadet.” We spent allowances, birthday money, food money—all for the thrill of making it to the next round or to have your initials up on the screen in pixilated glory. In the beginning we had those vector graphics games: first in monochrome (Asteroids and Lunar Lander); later in color (Missile Command). Then more sophisticated games like Space Invaders and Defender, which quickly yielded to Robotron: 2084 and the peak of video success: Pac-Man. (Anyone out there remember the ghosts’ names?) There was a TV game show, a video-game inspired movie, Tron, and a pop hit song, Pac-Man Fever.

Jump ahead 20 years, and today there isn’t much in an arcade to attract us Gen-Xers. First of all, I don’t know of any arcades that stand alone as a business anymore. Second, the vast majority of games today are either driving games (auto, jet-ski) or shoot-em-ups (shoot the insurgents, rescue the hostages!). Once in a while you might find a Galaga, with an obnoxious “20th Anniversary edition—don’t you feel old?” message. No Shinobi, Xybots, Gyruss, Donkey Kong, Pengo, Crystal Castles, Centipede, Moon Patrol, etc., etc., etc. I wander aimlessly around the arcades and blame Sony and Sega. A while back I bought the Sony Playstation game “Bally-Midway’s Greatest Hits” with Tapper, Joust, Robotron and a few others, but it’s just not the same with out the big console with the sturdy joystick, and the crowd of friends and strangers standing behind you and cheering you on to the next level.

Yesterday Sheridan and I met her friend Samantha and her mother Angela at Mountasia. It’s a putt-putt place with go-carts, boats and video games. Sheridan expressly went intending to play on a dancing game that blurs the line between arcade room and jazzercise. Dancers/players select a song and as the music plays, arrows move up the screen showing the player where she’s supposed to step (left, right, forward or back). There are big buttons on the floor that detect whether you are making the right steps and keeping the beat. This has to be the single most popular arcade game in the place, and takes us a long, long way from Pong.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

The Autumnal Equinox

This morning around 6:20, Fall officially begins. This is the autumnal equinox, one of the two days each year when day and night are of equal length. To our agrarian ancestors the significance was far greater than today, and I believe I already have a post bemoaning our collective Forgetting. Were it not for people like Charlemagne, perhaps we would all still be celebrating Mabon. I did a little research this morning and there isn't much agreement among writers as to the true meaning and significance of Mabon. The one thing they all agree on is that it's a day of transition, when people turn to the harvest and begin a season of celebrations. Even today, we have more holidays and festivals in the fall and winter than in the spring and summer. I look forward, as always, to cooler weather, the Renaissance Festival, Oktoberfest, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Eve. And it all starts today.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Sting and Annie Lennox

Last night Nora and I saw Sting and Annie Lennox perform at the Woodlands Pavilion.

Annie Lennox opened for him and sang several songs I didn’t recognize (presumably her new stuff) and of course she got the biggest reaction out of her 80s hits like "Missionary Man." God, I’ll always remember how shocked I was when Charles Follmer and I were watching WTBS Night Tracks in 1983 (there was no MTV in those days). When "Sweet Dreams are Made of This" came on and we recognized the synthesizers, we both exclaimed, “Ah!” Then we saw Annie Lennox for the first time, with her orange crew cut, men’s suit and riding crop. “Argh!” we both said again, but this time in a different way. She was almost as bald as Persis Khambatta and freaky as Siouxsie Sioux. Neither of us really knew what to make of the video, what with the cows wandering around. Since then she’s become one of those icons of the 80s music scene, and I was glad to see her perform live.

Sting was also good. I wasn’t a huge fan of the Police in the early 80s, but I remember playing his solo album Dream of the Blue Turtles over and over. Mostly he played newer songs, but he also gave us a rendition of “Roxanne” and “King of Pain.” After the concert we stopped by Chayn’s for a drink and to watch the crowds. For those of you who haven’t been, wow. It’s one of few clubs we can go to and feel young. Not too many places in Houston where you can go see women in their 60s shake their silicone to hip-hop music. Come to think of it, that’s probably a good thing. I emptied my pockets of the accumulated stubs and junk that people hand out at concerts, and the bartender asked us, “Did you just come back from a concert?”
     “Who did you see?”
     “Sting,” I said (sorry, Annie).
     He got all excited. “Stained? Are they in Houston?”
     "No, Sting! Sting!"
     His face fell. “Oh.” Our coolness factor dropped a few degrees.
     If I'd have told him I don’t know who Stained is, we would have bottomed out on the coolness scale. I told Nora, "I wonder what he would have said if we’d gone to see Engelbert Humperdinck." He probably would have thrown us out.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Law Review, Reviewed.

Ah, the joys of Law Review. I’m still glad I joined and believe (hope) it will help me. Here’s my unvarnished opinion of the experience so far:

The Good: Law Review members get invited to the most exclusive attorney-student mixers available. A few weeks ago, I shook hands with senior partners at Porter & Hedges and shared wine with litigators at Fulbright & Jaworski.

The Bad: Since that time I have been spent most waking hours (plus several sleeping hours) laboring on the grunt work of cite checking. A law professor writes an article and submits it for publication. The article is divided and assigned to various members. We take it and verify every footnote in a thorough, tedious procedure involving copy machines, highlighters, and trips to off-campus libraries. “Hello, does your library have Minutes of the Board of Directors’ Meeting for Angus MacPhearson’s Bagpipe Factory on February 31, 1977?”

The Ugly: People who think I’m a snob should spend 10 minutes among the new inductees of Law Review. The majority are cock-sure full-timers who have never experienced the joys of wage slavery. They lounge around the LR office and bemoan their opportunities: “I just got back from interviewing with V&E,” a student sniffs. “That’s four interviews today! I need a happy hour.” Their admission to Law Review validates their elevated sense of self-worth, and they seem to truly believe that an average of arbitrarily assigned grades quantitatively proves their superiority. I generally avoid them.

The Interviews: Some of the firms are interviewing candidates for summer clerkships. Most of the firms are interested in the 2006 graduates (full-timers) but some of us part-timers have managed to squeak in a few spots. The interviews are 20 minute meet & greets. Firms interview as many as 40 candidates in a day, and then they’ll take back maybe 6-8. Nationwide. Questions are as varied as the interviewers, of course. Some people have been confronted with questions like “Aren’t you just using us for the experience to try to go somewhere else?” while others are tossed doozies like “What’s your favorite movie?” Can you imagine the stress of wondering how to answer that? Whether or not you get the coveted summer clerkship depends on how you answer. What do you say? Does an answer like Citizen Kane make you stodgy or erudite? Does Caddyshack make you lighthearted or juvenile? Time’s up! Answer now! I have my second interview in 40 minutes. Wish me luck!

Thursday, September 09, 2004

New Orleans

Sorry it’s been a while. I have a litany of excuses for not keeping you up to date, but… after all, they are excuses.

Last week Nora and I decided to take advantage of the three-day weekend and drove to New Orleans to hang out in the French Quarter. I can think of few places that epitomize the concept of “melting pot” as distinctively as New Orleans. Over the centuries, a mix of cultures as far-flung as France and Africa simmered in the swamps of the Mississippi delta for centuries and created something utterly unique. There is a certain sultry earthiness about New Orleans, at once historic and modern, graceful yet grimy. Here you can enjoy beignets in Café du Monde, open since 1862, or see a troupe of hip-hop dancers performing on the roadside. These men, our generation’s incarnation of the tap-dancer, illustrate the modern twists on old themes that make up so much of the New Orleans experience. In this picture, one of the dancers lined up people from the audience and did a back-flip over all of them.

I could go on for pages about New Orleans and the adventures that await its visitors. The voodoo shops, jazz bars, carriage rides and paddleboats all contribute to an experience as distinctive as jambalaya and as spicy as boudain. Incidentally, they serve to-go alcoholic beverages, something illegal in Texas. You can walk up to a window and buy beer or a hurricane and carry it down the street.

Now as it turns out, every year for Labor Day the gay community converges on Bourbon Street for a Mardi Gras-type party and parade called Southern Decadence. People come from all over the country to attend. It’s like a pilgrimage, really, only with drag queens and rainbow beads. Of course we had to go check it out. One of my friends in law school gave me a hard time about this when I got back, suggesting my brush with Southern Decadence might herald a change in lifestyle choices. I explained to her that hanging out with her blonde friend won’t make her a blonde. Anyway. The police had blocked off a section of the street to keep the cars out. At this threshold stood four protesters. These men had taken it upon themselves to spread God’s love to the gay community with signs like “God Abhors You” and “The Wages of Sin is Death.” Some of the guys were posing in front of the protesters to have their pictures taken, and during the parade one sign read, “If we’re all going to Hell in a handbasket, be sure your handbasket matches your shoes!” I must admit I’m charmed by the plucky, upbeat way they shrug off the ignorant intolerance of others. I don’t know if I could be so gracious. After a while, one the partygoers had heard enough. He grabbed the protester’s megaphone and poured Evian into it. Everyone cheered.

In the evening we took a riverboat cruise down the Mississippi. I thought about my ancestor Thomas Court, who came to the US from England in the 1820s. We believe he came in through New Orleans, and I wondered what he would have seen and felt as the ship approached the city on those same waters some 175 years before.

By Monday we were exhausted from wandering about the Quarter and ready to come home. We abandoned our plan to visit the aquarium or the casinos and simply headed back to Houston. All in all, a fun experience and good break from the rigors of work, law school, and the Law Review!