A Game of Life or Death

Lately I’ve been Puzzle Quest-ing for my health, jumping on the treadmill whenever I want to game.  Possessing one of those mediocre minds that becomes bored quite easily, in order to exercise efficiently for any length of time requires a distraction, some outlet for my mind as my body goes about the business of toning itself.  Movies or the morning’s SportsCenter typically satisfies most folks, but in this case predictable plots haunt most of the cable HBOs.  And sports just bore me, thus reminding me of my legs, the sweat, and that gnawing pain in my lungs.

The difficulty in this activity of course is finding the right game, as all do not apply themselves well to the constant motion and noise associated with cardio-exercise.  Castlevania: Symphony of the Night worked quite well as did other 2-D platformers.  Story-based RPGs found me jumping off the treadmill in order to listen to dialogue.  Initiating the intricate commands of Street Fighter or fast-paced headshots of Call of Duty while your body (literally) is in motion left me crippled, dying from zombie bites or roundhouse fireball to the face.  Duct-taping the Rock Band drums to the adjacent bookcase, I nearly stabbed myself with the sticks.

PuzzleQuest requires little in the way of ‘game learning:’ no intricate controls, combos, or plot-driven cyphers to memorize.  Players match jewels, skulls, and coins and use the collected matches to hurl spells at zombies, ogres, and minotaurs.  The thrill in itself is simple: the cascading gems chime out bonus points, extra turns, and created weaponry.  Control in hand, I could run for hours and never notice what had so completely distracted my lower half, while my thumb successfully cast bolt lightning and saved the world.

My motivations for exercise requires some explanation.  Outside the obvious drive to remain healthy and mobile, reducing the fate of one day donning pants fashioned from sizable circus tents, I fear an abscess of sloth might reduce or stymie my desire to write effectively.  That’s one excuse at any rate.  The primary drive is purely competitive in nature: as Dasad strives everyday to run, leap, and even doggie-paddle during his free time, training for various club sports and other sweat-inducing activities, I dare not let that bum get too fit, too fast.  He might actually acquire the energy and quickness to beat me in Tekken, and that I can never allow.

Lately my friend has joined that special clique of Americans that run marathons and jogs in the wee hours of the day in tight shorts.  You might notice him or one of his brethren racing along the shoulder at three in the morning or seven o’clock at night, florescent tags stapled to their Speedos, faces flush with sweat and exhaustion.  I often wonder what runners consider while retracing their respective trails every morning.  Don’t they get bored after a while?  I’d be sorely tempted after fifteen minutes to find myself something new, pausing on a park bench to consider the scenery, the stars, or the scents wafting from the corner Starbucks.  Indeed I cannot criticize their focus, but certainly my ADD would not be able to suffer the repetitious movements, the struggle against muscle and fat, the absence of meaningful words scattered among the neighborhood woodlands.

For what purpose, I ask you?  Why do we pay the monthly fees for gyms, the twenty-first century equivalent of a torture chamber?  Health of course is the obvious answer, forever linked with suffering and physical pain.  The digital realm and the computer, a god in its own right, demands the daily sacrifice of time, energy, and those size 36 pants you’ve kept since college.  Unlike our ancestors, we work not to survive.  The dinosaurs are extinct; Nature’s predators are stored away in zoo or protected by countless government edicts; even Maryland deer bounce off the sides of our Excursion as we cruise up the road to the grocer’s for milk.  The Wild is conquered.  We run not to survive another day, but to avoid fusing with our sofas.

Thus, with the snow building outside and my mind now fully awake, my body creaks and groans, demanding exercise.  I shall grab my shoes and hop on the treadmill, controller in hand.  Until they begin cloning dinosaurs, this is the best I can do.


The lady orchestrating the morning’s events cracked the first joke, the loud and obnoxious type.  This was to be expected of Kevin’s Confirmation coordinator.  She would need to enervate children and sponsors alike from their  agnostic and mostly private social habits.  Her goal now was to inspire candidates and their sponsor to talk openly about their faith among strangers, people who like Pat and me possessed little desire to regurgitate age-old religion lessons from grammar school or weep blood.

Yet if that’s what it took to get us out of there by twelve, then so be it.  Frankly, I was feeling a little teary-eyed myself after the previous night’s combination basketball match and Nazi Zombie game-a-thon.  I yawned loudly, stirring lukewarm coffee while searching for our designated table, labeled Yellow with yellow marker.  On white paper too.  Wonderful.

Pat just rolled his eyes.  Our cousin Kathleen, his candidate, dragged him to their table across the room.  Kevin simply sat down and stared out at the snow falling outside the window, no doubt anxious to begin plowing when we returned home . . . if we returned home.  Mom had suggested the chance of snowfall the night before, but the flakes fell thick and fast, nearly covering the nearby lawns in seconds.  The roads alone still resisted the assault of ice, but as the temperatures continued to drop they too would be overwhelmed.  The aspect of bunking overnight at the kids’ elementary school with a crazed Confirmation teacher did not excite me in the least.  Still as far as Saturday night’s go, I’ve had worse.

Swarming around Ms. Rachel buzzed the hyper, overly-enthusiastic giggles of past year’s confirmants — three girls and two boys — all wearing brightly colored t-shirts which I learned later corresponded with the various table labels.  Team yellow was led by a relaxed kid in a sunshine polo, who introduced himself as Mark.  The other two kids likewise appeared bored but emotionally stable individuals, their personalities easily overshadowed by the last two girls who introduced themselves in song.

“Hi, my name is Crystal and I’m in love with God . . .”

10:00AM  Half-an-hour into the retreat and already I found myself clock-gazing.   Around the table we began introducing ourselves to the other candidates, mostly girls.  And their mothers.  I shoot Kevin a sympathetic grin but he ignores me.  I hear him murmuring Ford F150 and ‘sucky GMC plows’ and ignore him.  Pre-arranged questions in sealed envelopes are passed around as a means to break the ice.  The girls and their sponsors seemed hesitant to talk but nevertheless kind and down-to-earth.  Betty likes the beach.  Julie paints and runs track.  At an adjacent table, I caught Pat rolling his eyes.  Afterward he admitted that one of his neighbor’s wrote love songs to Jesus.

“I just didn’t know what to say to that . . .” he said.  “I just nodded and tried not to laugh.”

Of late, I treat most religious discussions with a fair bit of cynicism.  Though my religious faith remains unshaken, my faith in the religious wavers.  Most sermons — especially those outside mass — come off as fake and though not entirely dishonest, still very much lacking in honesty like a sales pitch for spray-on hair.  Too many people seem to have too many answers, flooding classrooms and auditoriums with words and not enough actions.  Singing songs and playing Bible games feels like ample carnival fair but cannot replace honest discussion.  Frankly, I’d be satisfied if Ms. Rachel removed the press-on nails, toned down her voice several decibels, and spoke simply, quietly: “This stuff makes sense to me.  These teachings have helped me become a better person.  Give me a few hours of your time and perhaps you’ll find something worthwhile as well.”

Instead we played games.  Name two gifts of the Holy Spirit.  What does the bishop carry with him during the ceremony?  Name two Sacraments of Initiation.

Admittedly it was interesting and fun to tease Kevin a bit.  Particularly around the girls at our table.  After announcing his favorite animal was a cheetah, there was only so much I could do.  Next Junior Youth Brigade herded Yellow and Purple tables into an adjacent room for a short video on Silence, why it’s so important, why we have so many distractions in our lives, and why does not God take up more of that time.  They threw candy at us beforehand to contrast with sudden and long silences dispersed throughout the program.  Stacks of paper were passed around for notes.  Yeah, right.

Outside the snow continued to fall, now covering the sidewalks and collecting lightly on the roadways.  Words flashed on the screen, much too fast for Kevin and his dyslexia to catch.  Pen in hand, we played tick-tack-toe until someone turns on the lights.

When we returned to our tables, I grabbed myself another cup of coffee while the second group including Pat and Kathleen left the room.  I gave them a hearty thumps-up as they shuffled outside.  Returning to our seats we began another Powerpoint presentation on faith and began discussing God as the whisper or God as the storm.  ‘How did you feel after watching the film?  Do we live our lives looking for the divine in silence or through iPods and television?’

Personally, I felt the conversation a little one-sided (In a large Irish Catholic family, silence are bad omens and often follow shattered porcelain or report cards.) not to mention a little condescending but shrugged it off with a few well-practiced answers from my Jesuit days.  No one wanted to discuss anything anyway.  These silent discussion about, well . . .  silence grew louder as conversations bubbled over into Christmas Lists, video games, and the snow ball fights.  By 11:30 we were all anxious to leave.  Even Ms. Rachel’s color-coded minions seemed a little less enthusiastic, abandoning the Powerpoint for their phones.  Tetris themes were heard over the intercom.  Pat returned from the media room and rolled his eyes for the twelfth time that morning.

As noon rolled around, we were quickly dismissed, eager to test my Explorer on the slippery slush of the highway.  The entire parking lot was an arctic tundra, cold, icy, beautiful.   I looked out at the falling snow, white fields and frosted trees, like an eraser in a cartoon expunging the scenery: blanketing all color, all grime, all noise.  It was probably the most religious experience I had all day.  Quickly, reverently and noisily we piled into the car and drove back home.  Laughing all the way.

Mom was making cookies.  It was snowing.  And Bing belted out the hits on the radio.  Life was good.

Judge, Jury, and Executioner . . . Please!

The god of pain descended mid November to distribute summons throughout the state of Maryland.   Letters for jury duty passed from door to door, a dark guardian of civic duty, binding citizens throughout the entire month of December to hours sitting, waiting.  Last Monday I spent my morning at the courthouse, squeezed close to strangers, many of whom appeared irritable, sick, and in need of a Febreeze-ing.    After an hour in traffic, I arrived at the courthouse 8:30 that morning,  ready to serve my country in exchange for my life, liberty, and that pleasant painless feeling in the niche of my back, which sadly abandoned me an hour and a half past lunchtime: “See you later fool!  I’m off to get some enchiladas.”   I had hoped to find myself unfit for trial, donning a racially charged  ‘Han shot first’ t-shirt and scuffed black shoes.  Either the clerk or the lawyers did not notice, or failed to read the warning signs.  Thus, trapped in a jury panel, I shuddered an hour past lunch, my stomach growling and my neighbor’s Old Spice, having expired over two hours ago, began entering the second-stage of rigor mortis.

Normally I don’t mind waiting.  Though the body is trapped, the mind is free to drift through walls, across seas, and into the unknown.  You merely need to uncover the right vehicle.  A good book, a soft quiet place, and some iced tea or coffee and you can easily transcend any uncomfortable situation.  Soar to Mars, hop a train to Sheboygan, or review old episodes of Duck Tales.  Anything’s possible.  Certainly, this philosophy proved the key to surviving long shopping excursions with Mom when I was a kid.   While my mother tripled-checked sales prices, mulling over whether this sweater or the green one at Macy’s would ultimately save her an extra 45 cents, I burrowed through stacks of men’s slacks for private reading time.  There in my nest, I’d wile away the hours until Mom finally gave into her wallet or the store closed.

In the jury room, waiting to be called for the court panel and voir dire (a legal process which aims to weed bias from the jury box), jurors can stretch out, sleep, read, eat, drink, relax.  Yet if chosen, all such amenities are stripped away, separated from sight as they herd us into enclosed cells without windows, water or ample female presence.  It was like high school all over again.  There in the courtroom, we were interrogated.  The judge and the lawyers ask a series of questions regarding the case.  Mostly these matters are cleared in seconds (‘Do you know Lawyer A with oiled scalp?  How about balding Lawyer B who reeks of garlic? No?  Good.’); however,  with more sensitive matters, jurors one by one will approach the bench, discuss issues and concerns for several minutes before returning to their seats.

It’s much like trading players in a game of fantasy football.  The judge attempts to eliminate bias, while the consuls try to exclude unfavorable sympathies.  In a murder trial, those jurors recently suffering from the loss of a loved one may favor the prosecution, allowing their grief to influence their verdict.  Thus, the judge covered all possible ground: previous drug use, past exposure to crime, guns, time spent on previous trials, pedophilia, family eating habits, favorite Christmas carols, NRA membership, Bogart movies, Thursday’s CSI, red herrings, and who’s hotter Edward or Jacob.  It took nearly three hours to sort through it all.

And in the meantime, we could not read, eat, drink, talk . . . simply sit there and stare at the room.  After counting the blue squares on the checkerboard carpet for the third time, I was suddenly struck by the inclination to name them.  “There’s Rob and Betty, their neighbor Carl who had a crush on Betty ever since high school but never got a chance to confess his feelings and so married a blond girl who resembled Betty slightly but only when the lights were dimmed.  Carl’s cousin, Earl, who lives across the street eats roadkill . . . ”  And so on, and so forth.

An older lady in blue sneezed loudly next to me as the court clerk began reading the names.  My stomach growled loudly.  I tried laughing it off but no one said anything, their attention focused on the clerk.  Like a reverse lottery, groans issued from the chosen, sighs from those left behind.  They had dodged the bullet.  Another number, another mutter of disappointment.  My heart beat fast, sounding in my throat and my legs.  I tried to be stoic about my situation.  Serving on a jury wouldn’t be so bad, an interesting experience.  Great to talk about afterward, and escape the duty for another three to five years.  Right?  Then as if in answer, claustrophobia overwhelmed me.  I needed to move, to breathe, to escape these four walls.  I considered holding hostages with book in hand, threatening paper cuts and poetry recitals.

“Juror #154, come and sit in jury position #12.” A lady rose from the front row, wearing a plaid shirt and a purse the size of a small child.  She did not seem pleased, and appeared in need of a smoke.

I had did it!  I wasn’t chosen!  Wahooo . . .

“Alternative juror #1 . . .”

Ah, crap!  The alternates!  How could I forget the basics of jury selection so quickly, culminated from years of reading John Grisham novels and Perry Mason reruns.   The culling had only just begun!   Moreover, by my estimation my number was next or at least approaching quickly.  Nervously I stared at my shoes, all other sights having been excused already (#46 you know who you are . . .).    The read off the first number. And then the second . . .

Outside the courthouse, I nearly sprinted through traffic to the parking garage, my stomach sounding louder than Baltimore traffic.  Edmond Dantes himself could not have extricated himself  faster from his prison.  Though after twelve the day felt cold, bleak, yet cheery, the kind that pulls men close to fireplaces, warm stoves, and piping hot chocolate.  God, was I hungry then.  My throat felt sore and unused, a headache loomed to ruin the rest of my day (As well as the next two days.  A parting gift from handkerchief-less juror #305).

My sentence in jury pool had not ended either.  I had been slated to return any Monday this month for selection until chosen for a trial.  My parole proved bittersweet and unless the state took pity on me during the holiday season — indeed if it took pity on anyone, at anytime — I could expect to suffer another trial in a week’s time.  Still as I jumped into my Explorer, it felt good to move about again.

Hooking up my iPod, I deposited my book on the seat next to me and turned the dial to Transsiberian Orchestra.  For the moment, a little Christmas cheer,  guitar wails alternating between ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ and ‘Carol of the Bells,’ was just what the doctor ordered.  My car squealed from the parking lot and began weaving through the city traffic, flying back into the counties and the nearest Barnes and Nobel en route.