Exile on High Street

Steph’s Saturday calendar was packed to the rim today (even more so than usual), and so, though she didn’t specifically order it, I’ve made myself scarce today.  I’m blogging at the Whetstone Library, one of the many stops I’ve made on High Street this afternoon.  I’ve been a regular on the 2 bus today.

Steph taught some voice and piano lessons this morning, and when I left, a double rehearsal for her a Capella women’s group, The MadriGals, had just started.  I slinked (slunk?) slowly and unmissed from the house, headed to Cartridge World to exchange ink cartridges for my Hewlett-Packard DeskJet printer/scanner.  (I’m too stingy to break down and buy a laser printer.)

There was rain last night and some this morning, so all of Columbus has a mildewy smell about it.  I seem to have outgrown most of the environmental allergies that plagued me as a kid, otherwise my eyes and nose would be running, and aforementioned eyes would be bloodshot right now.

I finally did buy the notebook I was seeking on Thursday, before my friend Scott and I found ourselves in the midst of the OSU AXE Undie Run.  (I’m still old enough to remember when having your underwear showing was the ultimate humiliation.  At the Ohio-Meadville Youth Con last weekend, I came to the conclusion that exposed bra straps are now a fashion statement of some kind.)  I bought a blue Mead 3″ x 5″ notepad, and christened it last night by making notes for a short story.  I haven’t typed a word of the story itself, but I think I know what I want to do with it.

I turned around and headed north here to Whetstone, mainly to return interlibrary loan books.  If they’re overdue, the fines can be prohibitively expensive.  I also picked up a Book on CD, Haiku, the most recent Andrew Vachss novel.  (I was a bit leery, since he’s permanently retired the Burke series, but what little I read of this book in print sounds fantastic.)

I’m not sure where Susie is.  She was in her bedroom with the door closed when I left.  I doubt I could have interested her in a trip to Cartridge World, so I didn’t bother to knock.  I had company on the errand; I’ve begun a long overdue taped letter to a friend of mine, so I was communing with my tape recorder (the Memorex MB1055 standard-sized one, not Diane the Olympus microcassette recorder).  As I was waiting to catch the northbound bus, a gaggle of four or five sorority women walked by (I was in front of the Newport Music Hall), and one leaned over and shouted “Hi!” into the microphone while I was talking, sounding like a nursery school kid on Romper Room.  The time-and-temperature sign in front of the Ohio Union said 12:45 p.m., and these women were already quite drunk.  It made me wonder how long they’d been at it.

I’m going to a wedding on Second Life tomorrow night–one of my rare forays into that domain.  (Its national anthem should be the Alan Parsons Project’s “In The Real World”: “Don’t wanna live my life/In the real world.”)  Steph and I are tux-shopping for me tonight.  I’ll enjoy that as much as I enjoy real-world clothes-shopping, I’m sure.  (I’ve worn a tuxedo only once in my life, when I was best man at a friend’s wedding.  When I saw myself wearing the tux, I wondered if it came with a hurdy-gurdy and a monkey, or if I’d have to buy them separately.  I didn’t even wear a tux to my own wedding!)

Were it not for the threat of rain, and my overfilled over-the-shoulder bag, I might have walked from campus to here, all 20+ blocks.  The musty after-rain smell didn’t make me as miserable as it would have during my childhood, but it was still triggering an itchy palate.

I probably should have walked, because I dozed off a few times on the relatively short bus ride north.  I slept rather well last night, but I recognized the dozings-off on the bus as narcoleptic attacks; I was going straight into REM sleep and dreaming in a matter of seconds.  It’s happened a lot on the way home from work lately, too.  Last week, I was riding the northbound bus and reading The New Yorker, and at least three times I dozed off, awakening only when my magazine hit the bus floor.  (The article I was reading was far from dull, too.)

The cough seems to be 95% gone.  I do still cough from time to time, but the tickle in my throat doesn’t trigger the long and loud bouts that have plagued me through much of March and April.  The chest pain episode on my birthday turned out to be pleurisy, so I’m willing to bet it’s all part of the same package.  There was a woman on the bus the other day whose cough sounded as bad as mine, although I could tell by the sound that she had a much more productive cough than I did.  (Mine was dry 99 times out of a hundred.)  I’d look over toward her seat and her face was red from the effort of all that coughing.

She got off the bus before I did, and I saw her opening her purse as she stepped off the bus.  I thought she was getting out an aspirator (for asthma), or her cell phone (so a friend could take her to Urgent Care), but I was wrong on both counts.  I was just shaking my head in disbelief when I saw her pulling out a lighter and a pack of cigarettes.  No doubt where her cough originated.  (Mine was probably an opportunistic infection that came when I was still recovering from the gallbladder surgery.)

Needing to Stay Grounded in This World

It’s been around since 2003, but I learned of virtual world Second Life’s existence only in the last two weeks.  One of Steph’s friends told her about it two or three years ago, and it pretty much remained in the back of her mind until one night when she was bored at the computer.  She went to http://www.secondlife.com and began exploring.  I watched enough of it over her shoulder and it whetted my interest, whereas Kingdoms of Camelot and Farmville made me wonder, “Just what is the fascination here?”

So, less than a week later, with Steph’s help, I logged on to Second Life and created my own avatar.  (I am not going to disclose the names of either of our characters, because they’re on Second Life, and the whole point is that this is reality and they are citizens of Second Life, and never the twain shall meet.)  The graphics and characters are a lot more realistic and solid than many I’ve seen.  (What little I’ve seen of The Sims reminds me of an animated cartoon more than anything true to life.)

We’ve explored several areas, both separately and together, and I can understand the allure.  I posted on my Facebook Wall that I was “venturing into the unknown… I’m trying Second Life for the first time.”  One friend replied: “If you’re like most I know into Second Life, allow me to say it’s been nice knowin’ ya.”  I dismissed this as silly when he first posted it, and then I looked back on this weekend.  I haven’t posted in the blog, I haven’t written in the diary, and the only books I’ve read are audiobooks at work while I index or work on something other than dictation.  (The last one, just for the record, was Ayn Rand and the World She Made, by Anne C. Heller.)

The tag line for the ’70s Marvel Comic Howard the Duck was “Trapped in a world he never made!!”, which describes many of us, if not all of us.  No one can say that about Second Life.  I’ve actually danced there, and I swam several laps in a pool last night, neither of which I can do in reality.  Steph and I were on Second Life visiting a nightclub whose owner’s rippling chest protruded from a white shirt buttoned only at the navel, with long white flowing hair down to the middle of his back, his arms bulging with six-pack abs.  As the owner of this sophisticated strip club, he was in charge of the pole dancers and strippers.  Both of us are convinced that the avatar’s creator is a fat, balding guy in his late 50s with hair on his back, dressed in a stained T-shirt and torn carpet slippers, with take-out and fast-food trash surrounding his computer and cluttering the bedroom in the house he shares with his mother.

When Steph and I maneuvered our characters into the club, I went up to the bar and realized I didn’t have to be a teetotaler in Second Life.  So I had a couple beers, and didn’t end up in the drunk tank, or making a complete ass of myself.

Dungeons and Dragons was first starting to be popular when I was in high school, and I gave it a fair trial.  I was never as obsessed as some kids (universally male in my high school), who would go immediately to bed on Friday after school so they could stay up all weekend playing.  I played one extended session at a friend’s house, and was glad to have had the experience, but never played again.  Until I graduated, I saw guys in the cafeteria, or in the library, with Gary Gygax’ many D&D reference books piled around them, meticulously designing his next dungeon or campaign on graph paper with pencil and calculator.

(Not even I was immune to its reach.  I had to give a how-to speech in a public-speaking class, so I demonstrated how to play backgammon.  I laid out the components for the game–board, doubling cube, and “six-sided dice.”  D&D was the only place, other than the geometry class I dozed through, where I ever heard the word dodecahedron used.)

Some parents were leery of D&D and its popularity.  One reason was because it siphoned off energy formerly devoted to classwork.  Also, the “steam tunnel incident” at Michigan State University generated very negative publicity for the game, almost none of it factually based.  (A 16-year-old child prodigy, James Dallas Egbert III, had gone missing from the campus.  He was a full-time student there, and had occasionally played Dungeons and Dragons.  He had gone into the campus’ underground steam tunnels to commit suicide by ODing, and a private investigator hypothesized he had gone nuts or gotten disoriented while playing D&D in the steam tunnels.  Long story short, he had drifted from friend’s house to friend’s house until he made his way to Louisiana, where the detective found him working as a laborer.  He had a drug problem, he found it hard to make friends at college because he was so much younger, he was clashing with his parents about his sexuality, he was clinically depressed, and his parents were riding him about keeping up academically.  D&D was a non-issue in his story.  Tragically, he took his own life a year later.)  Some parents may also have thought that Rona Jaffe’s idiotic novel Mazes and Monsters was non-fiction.

For years, I could always ridicule D&D players from my high school with a clear conscience.  (At a party one night several years ago, someone asked me, “Did you play Dungeons and Dragons in high school?”, to which my smug reply was, “No, I had a life.”)  Now, I can see the emotional satisfaction and release that it could bring.  The nerd wedded to his multi-function calculator can command armies and slaughter sadistic deities while in the game, even though in the real world the jocks and bullies would give him wedgies or shove his head in the toilet and flush it whenever they got the chance.

Since there are virtual worlds out there, I’m wondering what bearing behavior there would have on reality.  I was looking at this video on YouTube from The CBS Morning News: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruMi3MAGkvc about sex there.  There are women earning real money (as well as Linden dollars, the Second Life currency) as prostitutes, but since no real in-person sexual act is paid for, it’s totally legal.  (I think that’s the same law that would apply to phone sex for money.)  But does that mean that a sexual tryst, or  even an ongoing affair, on Second Life by a married person wouldn’t be adulterous?  I imagine Second Life chat logs have appeared in evidence in divorce courts.  The chance to have multiple sexual partners in a universe where AIDS doesn’t exist must be quite a temptation.

Since the hysteria about role-playing games fizzled out in the ’80s, I don’t find it surprising that no one has sounded the alarm or mounted a campaign against The Sims and Second Life (or their many counterparts).  These games and virtual worlds are pareve–neither meat nor dairy, neither evil nor good on their faces.  They can be beneficial or they can be harmful.  A scalpel in the hand of Jack the Ripper cut a path of gory death and misery through the Whitechapel section of London in 1888, whereas a scalpel in the hand of Dr. Bruce Lytle in Cleveland may have saved Steph’s life.