Monday, December 15, 2008

The Beak that Grips You

Throughout my son's pre-teen and teen years a major part of our relationship involved the negotiating of the playing of video games:  what kind, which ones, and how much time.  When I had  refused to buy toy guns for him as a child, he turned everything he picked up into a gun:  his butter knife, a straw, even his finger became a weapon.  The same was true with blood and gore video games.  The more I forbid them, the more he wanted them.  He and his friends learned how render useless the parental controls that parents put on their machines (he only recently told me this).  

I could feel him moving farther and farther away from me, especially as he moved into his teenage years, and searched for something we could do together, some way we could communicate.  He began playing Diablo, a game that seemed to me to involve only endless dark caves and caverns where ghouls and skeletons and other horrible things lived.  It seemed a depressing game that had no point but to kill.  He loved it.  He also loved a game called Quake, which involved a lot of killing as well, and lots of blood and gore.  I hated this game, perhaps more than any of the others.  

For Christmas, I bought games like Civilization and Age of Empires, games, I reasoned, that had some educational component.  You could learn something about ancient civilizations, something about what it took to build a city and keep it running.  Sure, there was still killing, but there was lots of other stuff, too.  You could learn about managing resources (you could, in the game, fish all the fish out of the sea or kill all the deer and have nothing to eat).  You could learn about the need to be environmentally conscious; in one game if you were not careful about how you developed your cities global warming could occur and destroy the entire world. If you didn't manage your international relationships well your cities could be blown up by hostile nations.  I remember clearly the moment a beautiful city that had taken me weeks to build was destroyed by an atomic bomb and wiped off the face of the earth within moments. Sure, I'm an adult, I knew this could happen in real life, but something about being invested in creating this city and seeing it physically wiped out in front of my eyes, brought the whole thing home to me in a more visceral way.  

Gray was never more than mildly interested in these games, although there were some times when we were able to play them together; for the first time it was he advising me on what to do.  "Don't build your city there, mom," he'd say, "can't you see that's a bad place, that guys can sneak up from behind that grove of trees and attack you?  And you should always build your city by water and where there's good resources."  

He introduced me to the notion of role-playing games (RPGs); he was also playing Final Fantasy and Zelda on his Nintendo, and I felt better about this games.  We had read Lord of the Rings together and shared a love of fantasy.  We played Myst together as well, a game that was more about puzzle solving than anything else.  I found myself drawn to the games that had a storyline, the ones that involved actual development of a character.  Here was where my intellect and imagination really became engaged.  

One Christmas I bought the game Baldur's Gate for Gray.  An RPG set in a fantasy environment, it put emphasis on character development.  The character makes moral choices and is rewarded or punished in the game for those choices.  Relationships among characters are also developed.  The games opening quotation is from Friedrich Nietzsche:  "He who fights monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster . . . when you gaze long into the abyss the abyss also gazes into you."

Darwin's Dilemma

I purchased my first computer, a Mac, in 1991.  I used it for writing, primarily, but also began to explore the web in my free time with the help of a computer scientist friend.  I swore I would never play games on the computer; even then video and computer games had a bad reputation. My son was seven at the time, and although he had a Nintendo at his dad's house I would not allow him to play video games at mine.   I didn't like the idea of violent games that seemed to only involve killing other creatures. 

I came across a game one day, though, called Darwin's Dilemma that seemed different.  It seemed to have some educational component.  How could something called "Darwin's Dilemma" be just about mindless killing?  Made for Mac, the idea was  to "push" matching creatures together in order to allow the creatures evolve into new ones and so on up the evolutionary chain.  I played the game, and showed my son how to play it, though he was less interested than I.  I don't remember much else about it, except that I enjoyed watching the little critters bump up against each other, and I got  a thrill when they transformed into the next higher stage.  There's a new game (just out this year) called Spore that's based on a similar strategy, although it's much more sophisticated.

I played Darwin's Dilemma the way my writer friends play card games, but it was such fun that I began to search for other "educational" games my son and I might play together.  In 1992 he had foot surgery and had to stay off his feet for two weeks.  I asked his pediatrican how I was supposed to keep an eight-year-old off his feet for two weeks.  

"Video games," he said.

So I caved big time and let the Nintendo into the house.  

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Writers and Games

Most serious writers I know who use the computer to write play some kind of computer game as a break between periods of intense writing.  Among my closest friends it is usually a game that has clear boundaries and is very short:  card games work well.  My husband, a prolific free lance journalist, plays Hearts on the computer as a break between writing spurts, as does another friend of mine from Iowa, who writes poetry, nonfiction and fiction and has published several books.  It's a way to clear her mind, she tells me.  Another novelist friend from Pittsburgh, who has published eleven books and for a time supported himself solely as a writer, said he had a card game he played on the computer.  His (now ex) wife would come home and mock him for playing games, and he would point to the books on the shelves that he had written.  

There is a stigma to playing video or computer games so you won't find a lot of writers who will admit they do it.  A colleague at the university where I now work commented to me several times about my predecessor that he used to "sit in his office and play video games all day." I can tell that in her mind, this is one of the worst things he could be doing. And yet he managed to write and publish a book of poetry in the few years he was here as well as do a good job teaching and directing the program. 

It seems that the smaller and more meaningless the game, the more one might be forgiven for playing it, as it clearly is just a way to rest or relax.  

World of Warcraft: Six Months

In July 2008, at the instigation of my son, and because I have long been interested in video games and the ways in which they shape young boys like my son, I created a character (called a toon) on the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) video game, World of Warcraft. My then partner and I had had plans to spend a few weeks in a log cabin in the mountains for vacation, but at the last minute they fell through. I found myself with three weeks of vacation that I sorely needed, and no plans.  I knew I didn't want to spend the time reading or writing or doing anything particularly useful.  I teach at the university level and administer a creative writing program; my life is packed with constant reading and writing.  I needed a break from words, a break from doing anything that smacked at all of usefulness.  I had also been concerned about the financial and environmental effects of all the traveling Americans do for vacations.  What if I took a virtual vacation, I thought?  What if I travelled to fantasy lands where orcs and elves and shamans and other wondrous creatures lived?  It would save on gas, be environmentally friendly, and serve my need for escape.

So I created a night-elf female druid toon I named Enheduanna, after the Sumerian poet and priestess Inanna (Sumerian goddess and sister of Gilgamesh).  The story of what  followed, in the next six months (yes, a few weeks stretched into several months as I fell in love with my toon, and with the game and the people I met there) was filled with  all the comedy and tragedy of any work of high literature, and moved me as much as any of the books I would count as most important in the development of my own psyche and vision of the world (Kafka's The Metamorposis, Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the poems of Dickinson, Neruda, Plath, to name a few).  After only a week or so playing the game I knew I wanted to write about it.  I felt like an anthropologist (or a spy), and in a way I was.  A woman in her fifties playing a video game dominated by young boys (or at least so I thought when I started), I saw myself as engaging in a kind of immersive journalism.  

I was also well aware of the addictive qualities of this kind of game-playing, and since I had already spent so much time thinking about drug and alcohol addiction (see my last post!) I decided I was particularly well-suited to dive into the game and expose myself to the possibility that I might become addicted to it. I could say, in a high-minded way, that I also wanted to understand better the fantasy worlds of my son and my step son, and it's true that I had that in mind when I started.  I could never have predicted, though, what would happen to me, and how involved I would get, not only in the created world, but in the worlds of the people who befriended me, nor how my playing of the game would impact my home life, and my relationship with the man who recently became my husband. 

Last night I took a final look at the toon I had fallen in love with--not Enheduanna, who was the victim of virtual identity theft only a month into the game (more about that later)--but her sister Liahuanna, a level 71 night elf hunter.  I moved her around the screen, admired once again the green markings on her cheek, her long green hair, her finely muscled calves, the rare armor she sported that had taken me so long to earn.  She had been six hard months in the making.  I whispered goodbye and hit the Delete Character button.

I'd like to write here, in serial form, the story of those six months that led up to the death of my toon. Stay tooned!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Alcoholism, Addiction

I've been thinking a lot lately about my changing attitude toward reading and writing.  The older I get, the less patience I have with anything I read that doesn't cause me to learn something or see something in an interestingly different way.  I don't want to write about anything, too, that doesn't seem essential in some way, even if it  only seems essential to me.  This means that the things I enjoy reading, as well as the amount of writing I do have decreased dramatically.  And maybe that's as it should be. So what, really, am I interested in?  

I care deeply about my birth city, New Orleans as well as southwest Louisiana and the Atchafalaya Basin, and I don't think I'll ever tire of thinking or writing about the personalities of this area, its cultural and environmental landscapes, the ways in which it contributed to my own personality.  Although I've written about New Orleans most of my writing life, since I haven't lived there in over 20 years I've come to understand the kind of writing I do about it as a kind of travel writing.  Since I was raised there, I also can hardly ever write about it without evoking the past, and I am feeling more and more that I want to write about the present.  

The jazzy spice, the seductive roux of the city is, for me, also inextricably mixed in with a kind of sadness and grief that sometimes feels unbearable.  New Orleans is where my father, an alcoholic, died at 59 of advanced  cirrhosis; it's where my younger brother died in his early 20s of a drug overdose; where my aunt also died of a drug overdose; where my brother-in-law,  was stabbed to death in a drug deal (crack); where another brother-in-law committed suicide, and where my only other brother died at 41 of a heart attack most likely brought on by abuse of steroids.  My only living uncle died--his wife would say of a broken heart--after watching Katrina's floods drown his horses and destroy everything--everything--he owned.  Almost everyone on my mother's side of the family (except, oddly enough, for my mother) had a serious problem with alcohol; even my grandmother developed cirrhosis, although she died of something else.   I've written about these people I loved in my poems and in my memoir, Swamp Songs, and sometimes I feel that I've written too much about alcoholism and addiction. Move on, I tell myself, write about something else.  Be happy!  Look at how successful your life is!  See how lucky you are that you escaped!

But it's not that easy.  I feel, sometimes, that this subject was given to me, and to not write about it is to somehow abandon those I loved who are now dead.  And what about those others, that tribe of others, who still live and suffer? Jung wrote that an alcoholic is a person looking for Spirit with a big S who gets distracted by spirit with a small s.  This is why addicts and alcoholics, recovering or not, sometimes seem to be so intensely spiritual, or that you can see all their spirit is concentrated in the superficial creation of spirit.  

I finished a manuscript of poems a couple years ago, Psalms of the Damned, that, in my heart, I wrote for those who have loved ones who are in the grip of something they can't control. I wrote the manuscript during the dark time when I had to commit a member of my family for drug and alcohol abuse.  The manuscript came close to being published, but finally was not; one editor said that though he liked the poems they were too "dark" for his readership.  

I like dark poems; I like poems that invite us to go where we would never go alone ("Let us go then, you and I  . . . ), I like trusting that the writer will get us back.  I recently judged a poetry contest for poetry press and the manuscript I picked to publish was very dark--maybe I'll write about it in a future post--but relentlessly honest.  I find consolation in darkness, I feel inspired by those who dare to go where most would not. I don't need the false redemptive endings.  I want to look in every corner.  Most days I would agree with Bruce Weigl,  who writes in his unforgettable poem, "The Impossible":  say it clearly and you make it beautiful, no matter what.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Snow, Sons

Snow this morning.  A fresh layer of snow always signifies something new for me.  A new page.  Another narrative on top of something else.  A brightness, hope.  

I have been taking care of my stepson this week while his father is away.  He is a teenager, and I've been living with his dad for two years so it's not like we are strangers, but the fact that I am now his stepmother has changed things somewhat, though I don't think either of us understands yet how.  But it's all good, so far.  We're slowly becoming closer, as close as a 17 year old boy will ever let you get.  I'm a little gun-shy with adolescent boys because my own son, now 24, and I had a tough time of it when he was a teenager.  I don't think I have any more disciplinary genes left in me.  I am glad not to be the primary parent.  

My own son visited two weeks ago for the wedding, and I was very happy to see him.  After a long time of estrangement, we are also getting closer.  One of my two fondest memories of the wedding reception was dancing, first with Teake and secondly with Gray, and I've been thinking about using the framework of the dance to write a poem.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Last Game

My friend, a man in his fifties, swears
he'd never let anyone beat him
at chess, at least, not on purpose.  Not  
a child, not a lover, and certainly not a dying parent.
He brags about playing his hardest against
his sick mother, who never beat him,
until the last game they played, a few days 
before she died.  She just played a better game 
for once, my friend says.  He is still proud,
I can see, of a lifetime of beating her.  

My husband, also a man in his fifties,  chimes in 
about how he's played Scrabble with his mother,
a renknowned poet, novelist, and translator
all his life, and beat her again and again. 
He's proud, too,  because she really knows
words: she speaks five languages and even 
translated Alice in Wonderland into Dutch.  
He swears he'd never not play as hard as he could
against her, no matter what, and even now,
as she lies with a broken hip, he thinks of
the games they will play (and he will win)
when we visit for the holidays.  

I listen to them talk, these two people I love,
in awe of such ignorance, and I imagine them
young again, boys, like my son once was, their
lips pursed in concentration planning their
next devastating move against the one who
had power over them.  I  loved those games
with my son, those few moments we were locked
together intimately, doing something we both loved.  
I wanted the game  to last forever.  How I loved
looking at him concentrating so hard on beating
me, how my friend and my husband
look just like my son did, in my mind's eye,
in those games I let him win 
again and again.  

Rain, Marriage, Games and Love

I married the man I've been living with last week.  We are both over 50 and neither one of us thought we'd marry again (I had been single for almost 20 years and he over 10).  I think one of the things you bring to marriage later in life is a realization that sometimes there are real periods of boredom and irritation in a relationship that you can get through, and that sex is not as important as you once thought it was.  I am taking so much joy in learning--I think for the first time--what it feels like to have an exquisitely wholesome and pure love for someone that allows for dog days and rain.

Teake likes to play games--scrabble, board games, cards, etc.--and he likes to win.  A few months ago he and another friend of mine who also loves games and is very competitive  were talking about their competitiveness and wondering out loud whether there were any situations where they would allow themselves to lose a game.  My friend, Alexis, remembered when he was playing chess with his dying father.  His father had never beat him at chess, but this day, a few days before his death, he did beat him. At first Alexis insisted he played as hard as he could--that he would never have let his father win, even if he was dying. Then, as an afterthought, he said, "Well, maybe I did lead a little too softly."  Teake countered by talking about how aggressively he played scrabble with his frail and ailing mother, never letting her win a game.  Listening to them, I wondered about our need to win, to best someone, even someone we love, even in death.

I've been lately thinking that marriage is a sort of game, albeit a more serious one, and Teake and I a team playing against some shadowy players we can't see, let's call them Tedium and Firecracker Sex.  

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


My new husband is a writer, a good one,
but sometimes he takes time from writing
to drive me around.  He knows I'm not a good driver,
that my mind wanders, that I am reliving
past events, imagining things I might have done
or said differently when I should be looking 
at the car in front of me, paying attention
to the color of the traffic light, the speed limit, 
he knows how many nights I've dreamt of dying 
in a crash, laid out on the street, no goodbyes.

When friends and colleagues visit, he drives them 
around for me as well, whistling and humming,
as happy as happy can be, and I am happy too,
a driven woman, to be now driven by one I love.  
When he tells me, driving, one day that he feels 
more important driving than writing, 
I want to say to him that writing is like driving, 
that poems always drive us somewhere, 
often places we don't want to go, that good poems 
are like good drivers, we trust them, they will
get us somewhere and back  safely,
but I don't say it, I don't want him to get
in a car accident thinking too deeply about driving:

for him, it's just a matter of  being useful, 
doing something for one who hardly ever 
lets anything be done for her, it's a matter 
of  keeping me alive.

The First Day

I have kept a journal for over 40 years. The journal, for me, something of a lone wolf, used to function as a confidante, a place I could say what felt like the truth, and it was a place that helped me to feel centered. I spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of journal I would purchase each time I needed a new one--what it would feel like in my hands, its weight, its smell, the texture of the paper, how easy it was to transport, to hold in my lap.  

I have journals from when I was 10 years old (a Barbie diary my mother gave me for my birthday), journals that chronicle my my intimate, girlish life, the songs I was listening to, and only mention in passing huge events like the death of Martin Luther King, the unknown woman's jewelry my mother found in my father's car, the first lie my father ever told me, journals that chronicle my time in Paris as a student, my travels to Costa Rica, Ecuador, my life on ranch in the hill country of Austin.  

The journal was the place I wrote my first poems, and later all the drafts for my poems.  When I started to write nonfiction it became the place I wrote the first drafts of my essays.  When life disasters occurred I wrote more frequently and with more passion.  When I felt unbalanced in my life, it was often because I had not written in my journal.

Lately, though, I have fallen away from keeping a journal.  I'm not sure why, but my written life is so tied to computers these days that the journal I used to keep doesn't seem to draw me the way it used to.  I'm starting this blog to see if it might serve me as well as my beautiful, scribbled and stained physical journal has served.