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Monday, March 31, 2008

Posting situation

This is a little update on the posting situation. Unfortunately, it's hit or miss here on blogger, still so posting will be sporatic at best. That and the added work load here at my job kind of prevents me from adhering to six posts a week. For now, I've ratcheted back to three a week in the hopes that I will actually make that goal. We'll see how it goes. I feel bad for letting those three people down that actually read this stuff.

Perhaps if things get better with the editor or I lose my job, kidding, I'll be back up to maybe five. Don't know. Until then, feel free to rummage through the old posts for a mild chuckle.


Saturday, March 29, 2008

I, Robot. You, Lazy

I will now impart unto the three laws of house cleaning, for married men.

1. Never attempt to clean anything inside the house without first instruction and consent from your wife.
2. A man must obey all house cleaning orders given to him by his wife, except where such orders conflict with the first law.
3. When in doubt, ask your wife, do not attempt to improvise.

Anyone who tells you a housewife and mother are not real jobs should be taken out and shot. Taking care of a household and those within it is a thankless and penniless job for which there is no advancement. You don't get a raise. You don't get a promotion. You get more work. There is no retirement until you are admitted into an assisted living facility. It took me 22 years to appreciate all my mother did for me and my family in the way of picking up my dirty dishes and washing my dirty laundry. For this, I accept my penance of helping my wife, whenever I can to "Tidy up the joint." Now, just because house cleaning is a manual chore, doesn't mean you can't have assistance from technology. Growing up, my mother had, and actually still has, this green canister vac which I believe is a Compact. The egg shaped metal monstrosity is older than I am and still works. I remember as kid, dragging that thing out of the closet across the slate floor. You could hear it all through the house. My mom would spend two days cleaning the entire house. Friday she would clean the upstairs and do laundry. Saturdays, she would clean the downstairs. This was her routine and for 23 years our carpets looked like they were brand new. So did the furniture. I have proof in pictures of our living room from both houses that I lived in growing up. The same furniture can be seen in both places spanning 20 years.

Picture of what the Compact looks like.
While that vacuum cleaner that she has is still functional and well cared for, mine are constantly in a state of disarray. I inherited a Dirt Devil upright from a relative about six years ago and it's on its last legs. I constantly have to change the belts or clean out the brushes. I guess having four cats doesn't help anyone keep a sweeper in good condition. I could be wrong and just have about as much luck with sweepers as an eight year old has with goldfishes. Still, the sweeper got good use as my wife and I would clean our house on a weekly basis. We are nowhere the level of cleanliness that my parents' house is but while my mother has that old Compact vacuum, I started to invest in all kind of good toys to help my wife keep a clean home.

After I inherited the dirt devil, my parents bought us a Breeze, which is a canister vac with a big old filter inside. This particular model has since been discontinued and I have to constantly clean the filter off with another sweeper in order to reuse it as I can't find replacements in any store. Dirt Devil's website does have them for $25.00 but that seems excessive. I might have to reconsider since the filter has a huge chunk missing from an incident in which I sucked up something from the hearth of our fireplace that was still burning. I turned around and saw the canister filling up with smoke and quickly took the vac to the garage to put the burning hairy mess. Our new house presented another problem. We had recently moved from a two bedroom townhouse with wall to wall carpet to a three bedroom ranch wall to wall hardwood floors. Animals and hardwood floors are a bad combination as sweepers just push the hair around and you have that feeling of embarrassment when company notices the occasional tumbleweed of cat hair go tumbling by. In order to help my wife, I saw an ad for the Hover Floormate. This little handy dandy vac/floor scrubber will suck up the dirt and then scrub the floors. It's a great help versus those stupid stick mops with the pads on the end. My wife loves the Floormate and while most women would feel slighted being given cleaning supplies for Christmas, it has become a sort of tradition and my wife doesn't mind being given domestic helpers. Along with the Floormate we got a Bissel QuickSteamer for the carpet in our family/game room. My wife is a piano teacher and kids tend to track a lot of dirt into the room.

For every good gift, though, there are the bad. While the Floormate was a great idea, I also bought her a Black and Decker Scumbuster. This rotating piece of crap doesn't have enough power to scrub dishes or walls all that well. I sort of inherited it as it does do a decent job at scrubbing the litter boxes. Another great gift from my Mother was a Scunci steamer. This thing is awesome. It does a fantastic job at cleaning the soot and dirt from the inside of our wood burner as well as steaming away the spilled paint from when we did the nursery. I hate to paint and this thing helps me as I also suck at it. For that great gift there was also another bad one in the new Dirt Devil stick broom vac. This is another chargeable sweeper that doesn't have the power to suck up a hairball, let alone a piece of dry cat food. Probably one of the best gifts I got my wife was our Oreck XL. It runs around the same price as those bagless vacs but it's great for carrying around as it's only eight pounds. It's also ergonomic for my wife's carpal tunnel. The thing actually works, too. The only drawback is that the bags fill rather quickly and lose efficacy as they become full. The last gadget that I bought that I still don't think was worth it was that "Scrubbing Bubbles" shower cleaner. You hit the button and it sprays around the shower four times. I will admit that there is no mold growing in the shower, but there is still soap scum and a film on the walls that has to be cleaned regularly. Chalk that one up in the "draw" column, I guess.

To date there is only one sweeper or gadget that we are somewhat afraid of in our house. It's our newest one. I feel like Michael Keaton's son in Mr. Mom fearing for the safety of my wooby from Jaws, although we've named this one Consuela. The vacuum I'm speaking about is one of those iRobot Roombas. My Mother in Law got one just before Christmas and my wife became immediately jealous. I hopped onto the Internet and found one on the home shopping network site that offered a lot of discounts and free shipping so I figured what the heck.

The robot arrived just after Christmas and since my wife's birthday is in January, it worked out well. The concept of this round robot is to continually go over the same area, executing turns when it runs into objects. Essentially, it works like my billiards' ability. If I hit the cue ball hard enough, it will travel around the table until eventually; a ball will be knocked in the pocket. It also comes with a little post that acts as a virtual wall keeping "Consuela" from crossing the border into another room we don't want her to sweep, yet.

All in all it is a pretty neat contraption and for the most part it does work. Although, it sometimes does not want to hit that one spot that has the most dirt. Also, one night, we returned home from dinner and heard this weird noise. We came upstairs to see the robot zipping around the house on its own keeping the cats hostage on the living room couches. One of them must have bumped it off of its base and it sprang into life.

Now that my wife has all these weapons of mass dusting you would think I would be free to not have to help her. That was my original plan. After all, she hates the way I clean. I don't spray the polish onto the surface; I spray it onto the rag. That's how I was taught. When you spray it on the surface, it tends to get elsewhere and then you are slipping and sliding all over hardwood floors past the fur balls that Consuela missed. Still, as much as I would love to show utter ineptness in cleaning so that I can get out of it, I still de-hair the couches, clean the bathrooms, and the computer. I do appreciate my wife and all she does, just like I finally did with my own Mother in my 20's. If I ever hit that lottery, I'll by my wife the ultimate in cleaning, a maid. That way she and I can both enjoy a clean house and not have the backaches to show for it. I do like the looks of the house when it is spotless and it gives you a sense of pride that you achieved such a feat. Your effort does not go unnoticed. Now, if I could just get Consuela back to her base, we'd be able to enjoy it in peace and quiet.

However, I swear that it and the broom vac are planning our demise. If we leave the Oreck up there, it will be the makings of a revolution. Next thing you know, a monster vacuum will travel back from the future, bent on eliminating John Connor and we'll have the makings for a really bad, but spotless, movie.

"I'll be vac!"

Friday, March 28, 2008

They call me Mr. Fitty Cent!

No, I haven't decided to finally pursue that career in rap music, although I look good in bling. Actually, this was a nickname I had last year. I bring it up because we are finally close to the time of year I love, summer. It's not that I do anything special, I don't even think I'll be taking a vacation anywhere other than porchview. It's because I will finally be able to drive to work without getting stuck behind a school bus. On my normal route to work I traverse four school districts and if I get the timing wrong I get stuck behind a bus that has stops all along the way. Having a three month break is always nice for my travel time as I can usually make it to work in under 30 minutes. Also, with the kiddies out for the summer, that means one more thing. Those damn school zone lights won't be flashing for awhile. Ok, before I get flamed for dissing the safety measures of our school systems, let be known I only get pissy with these zones because of a personal incident.

In 2006 I was travelling to work through one particular school zone. It was 8:03AM and the busses had yet to even begin delivering students to the elementary school when I passed through on my commute. After crossing the area, I noticed lights in my mirror. "What the hell?", I thought. I pulled over and begin the usual rigormoral with the officer who said I was doing 21 in the school zone. Most people will tell you not to do more than six miles an hour over the speed limit to avoid being cited, but this guy claimed he would have pulled me over for doing a mile over the posted limit. First off, there were no busses in sight and school wasn't even in session, yet. Second, do you know how hard it is to maintain 15mph in a car without going over. And cruise control does not work at that speed, I tried it. I guess I should be thankful as the officer did not cite me for speeding, but for failure to observe a traffic sign. I went on my way with a poor scribbled carbon copy of the citation.

I mailed out my payment of $106 that evening and decided to put the whole mess to rest. A week later, I received a notice in the mail that I did not pay my fine in full. Where did I mess up? I checked the letter again and noticed that I was short by fifty cents. I looked at the citation again and squinted to make out the amount. The officer had failed to color inside the lines and the faded amount of ".50" was barely visible crossing between two boxes on the yellow paper. I became livid. Not only was I ticked about the fact that I got pulled over for a mere six miles over the speed limit, now I was being sought after for a mere half dollar. I ripped up the notice, immediately, and declared that if they wanted their fifty cents they could come collect it at the door. I wasn't wasting an additional $0.41 on a stamp. If they would have just not bothered with the letter to start, that could have counted towards my payment.

Another two weeks went by and another letter came. This one was threatening me with a warrant for impending arrest. I couldn't believe it. All this paperwork over two quarters. It cost more to call them on a pay phone to clear it up. Soon, this became a mission. I was going to be a complete and utter jackass about this issue. We began formulating ways to get vengeance. After all, I was not going to write an additional check in the amount of fifty cents. Our thoughts turned to the following.

  • Drive out to the magistrate's office and lay each penny on the counter, one by one. Counting as we go.

  • Walk into the office and ask the receptionist if we could borrow fifty cents for the pay phone outside. Leave the office and then return to pay them for the fine.

  • Stuff the pennies into the mailbox of the office.

  • Send them a envelope with two stamps, telling them to keep the change.

  • Pay them in the equivalent of Canadian Change

  • Give them a coupon for fifty cents off at Dunkin Donuts

We opted for the least offensive and gathered up our penny collection and headed to the office. Unfortunately, they keep better hours than I do and the office was closed. We went home, probably wasting more than fifty cents round trip. My wife wrote a scathing letter, admonishing them for having officers with bad penmanship, and focusing money and man hours on coming after me for a fraction of a dollar. Feeling pretty full of ourselves, we stuffed the envelope with the fifty pennies, the hate mail, and used three stamps to send it. In all, this whole ordeal cost me five times the remainder of the fine but the cathartic satisfaction of sticking it to the man was reimbursement enough for me.

Two weeks went by with no communication via mail or a ring at my door bell with cuffs at the ready. I decided that I had better call them to ensure that my payment had been received. The receptionist confirmed that they did receive my payment but no mention of any letter or the fact that I mailed change. Apparently, it is not illegal to mail cash, just risky. Someone had told me it was, but it involved a chain mail scam and that IS illegal. After the dust had settled, a coworker began complaining about being stuck behind busses and I had to share my tale of woe. This recounting of my plight earned me the moniker "50 cent" at work.

It's been two years since my run in with 5.0 and I'm happy to say I've been citation free in my commutes to work. I've been careful not to get any other infractions because my little stunt could come back to bite me in the ass. Still, I enjoy the freedom from my brake pedal for those glorious three months out of the year when school busses get parked in the lot and their yellow and red flashing lights stop blinking. Of course, I don't drive the same route anymore because I found a quicker one that didn't involve me going through any school zones. After all, the real 50 Cent may have said, "I'd rather die like a man, then live like a coward", but I say, "I'd rather go another street than be caught by the heat."

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Eat at Mongo's

At some point in my childhood, I had decided that I wanted to open a pizza parlor.   I believe that desire to pursue that career lasted all of about a week, somewhere between piloting the Millennium Falcon and wanting to be a fire truck.  I still think about that early business venture as I drive past a pizza shop on my way to work to earn my $0.50 after taxes.  The name on the shop has changed about four times in as many years.  Not sure why no one is successful in that location.  It's highly visible on a major road from one highway to the next.  For all I know, it's the same people changing the name on the front to entice people into trying a "NEW" slice of pie. 

Besides pizza shops, I've noticed a lot of restaurants and the like that have changed over the past years.   Nearly eight years ago, my wife and I used to make a special trip to just Cranberry Township to get Krispy Kremes.  It was an accidental discovery while going to visit a cemetery in Evans City, PA, the famed cemetery from Night of the Living Dead.  On the way back through to the PA Turnpike, we happened upon the Krispy Kremes there.  Every so often, we'd let people know we were going, take up a collection, and come back with about six dozen donuts.  Shortly thereafter, a location opened in Greensburg and we didn't have to drive an hour to get them.   Suddenly, the Greensburg store close without warning and now it's a Chik-Fil-A.  The same thing happened to the location in Monroeville, equal in distance to us as Greensburg is.  I can't say I'm all that disappointed because it's not like I need to eat them.   It's just odd that a business whose arrival is highly anticipated folds up shop less than four years later.   Unrelated to the food industry, The Loews Multiplex in North Versailles closed after only two years in business.  Again, another business that was highly anticipated but failed to have staying power.  Think back to poor Chi-Chi's.  After nearly 30 years in business, a Hepatitis A outbreak caused its demise.  Actually, Chi-Chi's filed for bankruptcy several times, the last just a month before the outbreak.   There's also an old diner in Irwin, PA that had been around for years.  Since the diner closed, it's been in and out of business a few times.  It's in an even better location than that pizza shop, sitting smack dab on the edge of Route 30 near the Irwin Turnpike exit. 

Looking at all these defunct businesses, I can see that my unexplored childhood want to open a restaurant was better left that, unexplored.   My family has sat around the table during holidays discussing what would be a good gimmick.  My Mother actually has a little side business catering.  She's done a few small weddings and dinners for local groups.  Nothing extravagant, but she's well organized and keeps detailed books on her work.   We all jokingly call her little venture Studda Bubba's the phonetic spelling of the Slavic term "Stara bara," which means "old woman."  Being of Slovak descent we made it a running gag.  We have no plans to actually open any restaurants or shops because none of us have the capital or experience to do so.  Although, I still complain about the lack of certain establishments in my area.  I would kill for an IHOP.  The closest one to me is in Boardman, OH.  That's three hours of driving and almost ten dollars in toll road charges for pancakes.  Fun if you have a reason to go to Ohio, but who purposely has a reason to go to Ohio? 

A few talks with my Mother-In-Law got me to thinking, though.  If I were to open a restaurant, how would I do it?  In college, my girlfriend at the time shared a dream of one day opening up a little cantina on the Pacific coast of Mexico.  I wanted to name it "La barra de Los Jinetes" or "The Horsemen's Bar" after the name of a group of friends I ran with at Cedar Point during my summer job phase in college.   The inspiration came from a Pitt Campus bar/restaurant called Med Mex.  They offered students half of meals late at night.  Great food, a little loud, but the decor was exactly what I imagined in my place on the beach.  Ultimately, I would want a place that reflected my personality, something unique and different.  You can have you T.G.I.Fridays with a canoe on the wall and you can have your Quaker Steak and Lube with a stock car rear-end affixed above your booth.  I think I could offer a family friendly atmosphere while providing a unique experience.  I'm sure I could go through my house and fill the walls with movie posters and toys and all kinds of stuff from my life.  In fact, my wife would probably support the idea of putting all that junk to good use, as long as it is out of the house.  Hopefully, I wouldn't end up with a hodgepodge of dislike items that would be the restaurant equivalent to Homer Simpson's ill fated "The Homer."

Let's talk about menu.  When my wife had her wedding shower she received a cookbook with a whole bunch of recipes submitted by those invited.  This was a handy little thing as neither one of us has any real cooking expertise and could use a few ideas besides Mac and Cheese night or Spaghetti-O surprise.  Some of the greatest dishes I've ever had the pleasure of tasting have been family secrets from both mine and my wife's family.  The running gag in my house is that I only married my wife to get her Dad's chili recipe.  That's not so much the gag but the fact that they put it in the cookbook which was also given to everyone in attendance at the shower.   There are a lot of recipes in the cookbook and I'd like to have a place that doesn't just serve the normal dishes.   Yes, I want to have pasta and steak but I'd also like to serve a lot of home-style dinners that most people don't get out at a restaurant.   Let's take a look at some others.


Agnes Dressing - My Father in law has a few other recipes tucked up his sleeve.  His mother made a great dressing for salads that consisted of Hellman's, sugar, cider vinegar, and half & half.

Granny Stephens Dressing - My Mother in law also has a few great family recipes. This one contains, Hellman's, chili sauce, sugar, half & half, cider vinegar, and hard boiled eggs.   It's a lot like Thousand Island dressing but with eggs.  You serve it over a wedge of iceberg lettuce.

Waldorf Salad - I don't know how it's made but I love it.  I know it contains apples, celery, raisins, walnuts, cream, and mayonnaise. This goes great with breakfast items. 


Italian Sausage and Tortellini Soup - Another trade secret, but yummy.

Broccoli Cheese Soup - Just because I love the stuff 


Steak and Potatoes Mullin - This is actually a friend's recipe that he cooked for us on vacation.  First off, I'll never, ever cook steak again without Montreal Steak Seasoning.  Great stuff.  Do a rub with that, meat tenderizer, and black pepper.  Grill it.  Get some canned whole potatoes and add parmesan cheese, garlic, and butter.  Grab a bag of Green Giant cheese and broccoli and you've got a great meal.

Chili - This is the one.  I am not going to give away the secret ingredients; however, I will tell you that the chili is best when cooked the day before it is served.  The next day you just throw it back in the pot. 

Deserts I'm only adding two unique deserts outside of the usual.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Pie - This was an experiment by my wife.  Cooked chocolate pudding with a little less than three cups of milk, add peanut butter and pour into a crust.  Cover the pie with cool whip and add shaved chocolate bar.  

Pudding and Ice Cream - It doesn't sound like much but man is it good.  My Mother used to make this for us as kids.  Cook chocolate pudding.  Cover a bowl of ice cream while the pudding is still hot.  Simple. 

Sticky Bun - Not really a desert but decadent all the same.  Mix syrup, walnuts/pecans, brown sugar, and butter into a sauce and pour some into pan.  Take Pillsbury Hungry Jack flaky biscuits and put them around an angel food cake pan and cover with the rest of the sauce.   Bake and serve.


French Toast - Not that anyone doesn't already have a French toast recipe, but I like mine the best.  Eggs, sugar, milk, vanilla extract, mix.  It's that simple.

Blueberry French Toast Casserole - Another M-I-L recipe that consists of day old bread, cream cheese, blueberries, corn starch, sugar, butter, maple syrup, eggs, milk, and water.  It's another secret so I won't divulge the preparation but it cooks up like a quiche or omelets.  Cover with blueberry sauce made from the syrup, starch, and blueberries.

While, I'm sure that there is nothing spectacular about any of these recipes I still think the personal touches are needed to be successful.  Simple things like an actual tea cup and saucer for tea instead of a mug could give you that uniqueness that drives customers to you in hordes.  If anything else, I'd have a place to get something good to eat and I wouldn't have to drive to Ohio to get it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

All Your Free Time Are Belong To Us

Video Games, yeah! I've spent the better part of my youth, and adulthood, escaping work and other chores just to get five minutes of game time. Whether I was twiddling my thumbs over buttons or using my whole body to make my ship fly a different direction, long before a sixaxis controller, I invested a lot of time and money into them. From the Golden Age of Video Arcade Games to the seventh generation consoles, I've watched the meteoric rise of the video game industry. I've seen it come from the humble beginnings of a pong console with only a dial controller all the way to the Nintendo Wii with its "wiimote." I've plunked my quarters into arcade games time and time again while pestering my parents to get me the same game for our Atari 2600 in hopes that I could duplicate the look and feel of the arcade without wasting my allowance. Unfortunately, the Atari 2600 couldn't match the original arcade versions and poor gaming quality and over saturation of the market led to the Video Game Crash of 1983.

Arcade vs. Atari
Comparison of Pac-Man graphics

While Computer Games held my heart in school and beyond, I still yearned for a high quality gaming dedicated console. The NES offered some release but it too fell short in the long run in favor of better technology. As we moved into the 21st century, Sony placated my insatiable taste in gaming but fatherhood denied me the time needed to endeavor on quests and missions in the Seventh Generation of consoles. I detailed my entire life through the video game industry over the course of five weeks and as many posts and here is the complete list as a single entry. Enjoy and feel free to add your own memories.

Part One: Yorgle, Grundle, and Rhindle, oh my!
The early beginnings of gaming on the Atari 2600 and other 2nd Gen. consoles.

Part Two: Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start
Childhood memories of the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Part Three: Ctrl+Open Apple+Alt, 8, 1. Press play on tape.
A look at my computer gaming history from cassette tape to CD-ROM.

Part Four: A Zombie, a Hooker, and Tiger Woods walk into a bar.
Running the gamut of the gaming on Sony Specific Systems.

Part Five: Insert Coin. about to die!
The pinnacle and progenitor of my penchant for my playing.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Insert Coin. about to die!

Part Five of the series, All Your Free Time Are Belong to Us

As this series winds down to a close I just realized that I wasted a hell of a lot of time in my life playing video games. In 33 years, have I really played video games, that much? If it weren't for home gaming consoles, I'd probably have gone broke from one of my earliest and favorite of all gaming outlets, the arcade! Ah yes, the clinking of coins into the slot was music to my ears. I remember the early days of arcades where video games only cost a quarter. Now the most popular games cost as much as a dollar to play and that's nothing to say about adding more money to continue when you get the dreaded "Game Over" screen. Now, it seems like the arcade is facing a "Game Over" scenario with home gaming becoming a more technologically superior industry.

Actually, I feel bad for the "Arcade." In the 80's, during the Golden Age of Video Arcade Games, the coin operated game was the pinnacle of gaming technology. The few emerging home consoles such as Atari and ColecoVision couldn't come close to the technology needed to render the graphics you would get in your local bowling alley or bar. Somewhere along the line, though, home consoles caught up with and may have even surpassed the old stand up stalwarts leaving the last few working Space Invader cabinets to grumble, "Back in my day, you only needed 8 joystick directions and one button to have fun." Who can't remember going to Pizza Hut with their family only to leave the table and seek out that cocktail cabinet style Ms. Pac Man game in the corner? Some of my earliest memories include the phrase, "Mom, can I have a quarter?" My town even had a local legend about a guy named Chucky Moss who rode a bike around with a huge flag sticking off the back. He would go to the local Laundromat and play Pac-Man. Unfortunately, Chucky only knew two directions, left and up, which would ultimately leave him cornered with Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Clyde free to chomp him unabashedly.

Growing up, there was always an arcade in the mall which could siphon the money from my pocket. It was like a magic trick. I never remembered putting more quarters in but always ended up broke. While my mom would shop for Christmas gifts at the Hills store in Uniontown, PA, I’d be in the lobby area firing quarters into the Castlevania game. When I'd run out of money, I'd go to the toy section and ogle over the Nintendo display, hoping that this was the year she grabbed one off the shelves. It never happened. I ended up buying one off of a friend.

Then, there was the skating rink in our town. For about three to four years of my childhood I spent Friday nights and some Saturdays there. During the mid to late 80's, a lot of kids had birthday parties at the local roller rink, so there was always a reason to go on the weekend. Most kids would put the few quarters they had on the edge of the pool table, just waiting to play. I would put them into the arcade games along the wall. Now, I did do my fair share of skating, but whenever Rudy, the old guy who ran the place, called out, "The next skate is for couples" I knew it was time to leave the floor and head to the Super Mario Bros. or Double Dragon game. This also occurred with the Backwards Skate and Shoot the Duck songs as I only knew how to do two things on roller skates, go fast in one direction and fall down hard. If I wasn't playing a video game at the mall or the roller rink, perhaps you could have found me in the arcades at amusement parks. Kennywood still has a couple of arcades in the park. Cedar Point has about three, the main Coliseum Arcade along the main midway and the Gemini and Jitney arcades towards the back of the park. On rare occasions, we may have found ourselves being treated to a night out at Major Magic's, a Chuck E Cheese clone. Our parents should be considered saints for allowing us to be plied with sugar, caffeine, tons of pizza while we spent countless hours playing games and watching dancing bears. Of course, none of the ill effects would kick in until it was time for bed.

If we went on vacation, I could always sniff out an arcade like a bloodhound. There were always a few arcades along the Boardwalk at Ocean City and around the downtown Myrtle Beach area around The Pavilion. One year we stopped at a campground on the way to our intended destination and I remember wandering down to where the general store was. Next door was a little room with about ten games. I can remember the place being perpetually empty and the silence would be pierced by the electronic voice of the pinball machine telling me to "Rack 'em." When we weren't on vacation, sometimes we'd visit friends who had a camper permanently set up at a place called "Cutty's" Of course; it hasn't been called that for years. It's now called Mountain Pines RV Resort and I think the activities geared towards kids are no longer around. In it's hey day, however, I always found some free time to play a few games in their arcade in between trips to the pool and hikes across the creek to the woods where a few lone remnants of buildings stood including a totem pole and a chimney.

While my brother was in college at The University of Pittsburgh, I remember visiting him and being extremely jealous that he had arcade games in the lobby of his dorm. They accepted tokens instead of quarters and if you spent a whole five dollar bill, you got four extra tokens. Of course, you had to use them or they didn't work anywhere else. When I attended Pitt, seven years later, I found myself skipping a few boring classes in the afternoon to waste time at the union. They had a huge room full of pool tables and a tiny little nook with about seven arcade games.

The arcade culture is something that can be boiled down into two concepts, fame and achievement. Those of us who ever spent time in an arcade always felt the basking ray of fame wash over us when we scored just enough points to plug three letters of our name into the high score screen. In the early days of the Golden Age of Video Arcade Games, games didn't have an end. Technically, they did, because most of technology for games during this era didn't allow for the infinity scenario and the game either became glitchy or unplayable. Famous instances are the "Split Screen" level of Pac-Man and the "Kill Screen" that occurs in Dig Dug. Even with the kill screens these types of games were designed to just repeat levels with increased difficulty giving more street cred to anyone who was able to rack up millions of points all on one play. When game technology shifted in the mid 80's games became less about the high score and more about "beating the game." While games like Rolling Thunder and Double Dragon offered a high score tally at the top of the screen, the ultimate goal was to successfully navigate through the whole game and beat the "Final Boss" at the end. These games attracted huge crowds and it was hard to get in close enough to slap your quarter(s) up on the cabinet securing your place in line. When the first player was finally defeated or, at least, ran out of quarters, they would move aside and the next person in line took their quarters from the cabinet and had their turn. A smart gamer would always hold one of the buttons down after they lost to quickly reduce the "Continue" count down to zero, ending their progress. This was a common practice to deny "cherry pickers" the chance to continue on your game, reducing their expenditure of quarters. After all, you poured your blood, sweat, and tears into that two hour marathon of gaming. Why should some rookie finish your game and get all the glory?

While my love of the arcade may be a lasting one, unfortunately, it's a rarity to find one these days. Not to mention, we've just grown up and old. We have less and less time for gaming, let alone a reason for going to an arcade with the sole purpose of spending countless quarters on five minutes worth of fun. Still, every year for my birthday, my wife indulges my need to be a big kid and we go to Dave & Busters. For those of you who have never been there it's a restaurant/bar that is on par with say Houlihan's in style and menu. However, in the back there is a huge arcade with tons of video games. They also have a bunch of games that give out tickets for redemption of prizes just like Chuck E Cheese. They don't use coins or tokens but have a prepaid card that you swipe to play. I can usually sucker her into a racing game or zombie shooter game but other than that she just stands by and watches this big old dork have fun.

Hopefully, one day, I can save her the anguish of being seen with said dork and privately geek out in my own game room with my favorite games and pinball machines. My pipe dream would be to have a room in my house dedicated to this. I'd have a pool table and a jukebox and a collection of the classics sprinkled with a few modern favorites. Now, these classics aren't cheap and they are very rarely found in good condition, but I'd still want to try. Even though I have the ability to play most of my favorites on my computer, there's nothing like having a full sized cabinet in your home. Emulators, such as MAME, have the capability of reproducing most video games and can be played on a PC. There are even eBay auctions and books dedicated to "MAME Cabinets" that act as a coin operated game playing hundreds of titles all on a dedicated computer inside the cabinet. While this isn't a cheap fix for your video arcade addiction, it's a cheap imitation of the culture it supports. If you're going to do it right, be a collector. Buy the games from other collectors or arcades that are going out of business.

For now, I'll continue chasing that dream like a power pelleted Pac-Man chases a blinking blue ghost, because Mongo needs food, badly.

Mongo's dream collection of Coin Op games

Galaga My all time favorite.
Gauntlet II The inspiration for the title of this post. Long hours were spent on this one.
Blasted A not so well known game from the makers of Rampage.
Xenophobe I loved this game at the Roller Rink. I must have spent $5.00 a trip.
Double Dragon I and II These two games at the rink took more money than a politician.
Super Mario Bros. One of the hardest games to get on in an arcade in the mid 80's.
Mario Bros. Not to many people found joy like I did in this game.
Rolling Thunder Cool music, spy theme, and all the KKK members you could kill.
Star Wars Trilogy I play this once a year at D&B's. Can beat it on one play.
Star Wars A classic that still poses a challenge
Out Run I could never get past the first checkpoint, but I loved tuning in stations.
Mr. Do's Castle One of those wacky games that still gets me.
FunHouse (pinball) Spent an entire week at Myrtle Beach playing this game. Frustrating.
Jurassic Park (pinball) One of the better pinball games out there.
Mortal Kombat II While working at Idlewild this game stole a lot of my break time and money.
Crazy Climber Who doesn't like being crapped on by a big bird or having a pot thrown at them?
Street Fighter II Another one of those quarter suckers.
Smash TV Another two hander that I spent a vacation playing.
Legend of Kage Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has nothing on this game.
Shinobi Another hard one that I could never beat.
Rampage Classic smash em up as Godzilla, just don't punch the neon sign.
Eight Ball Deluxe Shoot the two ball. Another classic Bally pinball title.

Monday, March 24, 2008


Unfortunately, it appears I've been laxed with my posting. There has been some glitchiness with the editing feature and I cannot format my posts correctly without extensive HTML coding to support the usual tags like indent and bold. This is a side gig for me and it takes twice as long to try and insert all the tags. This is something I just don't have time for. I will continue to build up a repository of posts to eventually publish but until fixes this issue, I just can't keep up.

Sorry to me three readers out there. Think of it as a writer's strike.

No, don't. Just kidding.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Great American Mix Tape #4 Side B

On Side A I extolled the virtues of masters of the Maxell. What I failed to realize is that tape is a dead art form. As much as I would love to shout from the rooftops for everyone to grab a TDK 120 minute tape and Wang Chung tonight, I have to face facts. Unless, you're driving a pre 21st century car, you probably don't have tape deck capability. I give you kudos if you purposely installed a tape deck in your vehicle. Otherwise, the odds of you being able to listen to a mix tape, while driving, is slim to none, and slim just got off at the last exit. Even as we raced towards the horizon of the 21st century, ripping CD's onto our hard drives or surfing Napster and Kazzaa only to be shut down by the RIAA in favor of legally downloaded music, I still held onto the last bastion of mix tape mania. My 97' Chevy Cavalier had a non functional tape deck so I sprang for a $100 Sony stereo and CD changer installed in the trunk. While most people were buying generators for the impending doom of Y2K, I was prepared for tapes to disappear by just popping 10 of my favorite CDs into the magazine and hitting random.

While Y2K barely affected the world, the cassette tape slipped into oblivion and now hundreds of great road tunes languish in a box in my spare bedroom. I had to embrace the digital age and allow myself to work in the medium of mp3s. I will also allow all of you to do so as well. It's OK, really. I permit it. HOWEVER, don't think that gets you off the hook for quality. Just because you can burn hundreds of song files onto a CD or make a playlist that goes from here to infinity doesn't mean you can get lazy. I still expect the same thought out planning to be put into a playlist as you would into a mix tape. Truth be told, I actually like the ability to make playlists and mp3 CDs more than creating tapes. I would spend roughly 3 hours putting together a 90 minute mix tape. Once you gather all the source music and set up the equipment, you pretty much had to listen to the entire thing while you made it. Unfortunately, after spending an afternoon putting together a masterpiece, I was tired of listening to the songs. Some mix tapes would go unplayed for a few days after completion to allow myself a chance to get the songs out of my system. CD burning alleviated a lot of this with the ability to just drag and drop. Still, in the early days of CD burning, there was a substantial wait time for the completed project, not to mention "one and done" finality or the disc could get screwed up. I have a stack of CD's labeled "Bad" on a spindle next to my computer. This is my CD mix graveyard. With iTunes or other mp3 managers I can just drop and drag my files from folder to playlist in less than ten minutes and if it's not the end of the world if I don't like my selection.

Now that we have the ability to put together a playlist, let's apply technology to philosophy and create a kick ass, skull cracking, blood boiling, head banging playlist. Wow, does that sound limp. It's like replacing Shell Shock with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It goes from being a serious issue to a clinical afterthought. However, I refuse to let technology deter the quality of a good idea or story. This new fangled way of creating a "digital mix tape" will only serve to support the foundation of good music choices, not overrun it. I will not make The Phantom Menace, I will construct The Empire Strikes Back.

On Side A, I also gave a little insight as to how my list of songs could fit into a mix tape. Since we are forgoing the essence of the magnetic medium we are free to make a playlist as long or short as we want. We can envision a three song trip or one that spans the entire space of a 80gb iPod. It's truly up to you. I do feel the need to stress a safety concern. If you choose poorly and find yourself skipping songs on a list because they don't fit into your overall oeuvre of auditory delight, you may put yourself at risk of an accident. Just because it is not a cell phone, doesn't mean it is not distracting. So, choose wisely. I have outlined a category below and selected a group of songs for each. Whether you have a road trip planned for weeks or simply need to get out of town in a hurry, I have tried to dissect the essence of these songs and figure out where they can fit into your plans. Will it be daytime or night? Is it good weather or bad? Are you on the run or running towards something? These are all valid questions when it comes to planning out your highway hit parade. Here we go.

The Escape, Rescue, or Final Battle
Scenario 1: It's the end of the world as you know it and you need to get the hell out of town before the streets are jammed with people crawling at a snail's pace. Perhaps putting in that Gordon Lightfoot CD was a bad move on their part because now, the aliens are on their way and we're stuck in traffic.
Scenario 2: The bad guys got your girl and you have little time to be the hero and save her. You jump in the hot rod and make your way to the goon riddled hideout with only vengeance in your heart and a song in your car.
Scenario 3: The evil villain has the world held for ransom and it's up to and your trusty sidekick, the iPod to take his ass out. But, first you have to navigate the man streets to get there. Drop your shades into lock position and beat the rush early by having these songs preloaded on playlist, ready to go.

"You Know My Name" Chris Cornell (Casino Royale Soundtrack)
"Shot Gun" Southern Culture on the Skids
"Ballroom Blitz" Sweet
"Sabotage" Beastie Boys
"Spin Me Round" Dope
"Battle Flag" Lo Fidelity All Stars featuring Pigeon Head
"The Kids Aren't Alright" Offspring
"Take a Look Around" Limp Bizkit (Mission: Impossible 2 Soundtrack)
"Bodies" Drowning Pool
"Highway To Hell" AC/DC
"Kickstart My Heart" Motely Crue
"Pump it" Black Eyed Peas
"Push It to the Limit" Paul Engeman (Scarface Soundtrack)
"Pavilion / Venus Isle Reprise" Eric Johnson (instrumental)
"Don't Drink the Water" Dave Matthews Band
"The Final Game" Jerry Goldsmith (Rudy Soundtrack) (instrumental)
"Back to the Future Theme" Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future Soundtrack)(instrumental)
"Rocketeer To The Rescue" James Horner (The Rocketeer Soundtrack) (instrumental)
"Love Missle F1-11" Sigue Sigue Sputnik (You'll remember this from Ferris Bueller's Day Off)
"He's a Pirate" Klaus Bedelt (Pirates of the Carribean Curse of the Black Pearl Soundtrack) (instrumental)
"Mine all Mine" Van Halen
“Lunatic Fringe” Red Rider

The Bank Job or Slapstick Car Chase
Scenario 1: Somehow, you've just been wrongly accused of robbing a bank. Perhaps the teller misunderstood you, maybe the real crooks just left and your identity matches theirs. Either way, you've got to get out quick. Hop in the Hoopty and get gone.
Scenario 2: This could be segued into from Scenario 1. It could be a mad cap race to the finish line or the keystone cops are after you and all you have is a few short cuts and close calls between you and freedom. Avoid capture by calling up this list.

"Excuse Me, Mr.” No Doubt
"Cotton Eye Joe" Rednexx
"Higher Ground" Red Hot Chili Peppers
"Steve's Boogie" Eric Johnson (instrumental)
"Take The Money and Run" Steve Miller Band
"Theme from the Goonies" Dave Grusin (The Goonies Soundtrack)
"Triangles and Cowbells" The Refreshments (Extended version of the King of the Hill theme)

The Ninja Mission
Scenario 1: You're a private investigator or wisecracking reporter determined to bust the case wide open, all you need is stealth and the right music to silently track down that bad guy to his hideout where the evidence is out in the open for you. Keep a safe distance and follow him to the dope.
Scenario 2: You need the supplies to carry out your mission and that abandoned warehouse has all the stuff you need. Don your ski mask and get to sneaking.

"Fletch" Harold Faltemeyer (Fletch Soundtrack)
"Mission: Impossible Theme" U2 (Mission: Impossible Soundtrack)
"Peter Gunn" Henry Mancini
"Axel F" Harold Faltemeyer (Beverly Hills Cop Soundtrack)

She Loves Me
Scenario: Sometimes, you get the girl. Sometimes, the planets align. She chooses you. Now, you're driving high on the love. Get out there and make a fool of yourself.

"Girlfriend" Matthew Sweet
"Follow You Down" Gin Blossoms
"Rosanna" Toto
"Some Kind of Wonderful" Grand Funk Railroad
"I Believe I Can Fly" Me First and the Gimmie Gimmies (Also doubles as a chase song if you are driving in San Francisco catching air)
"Are You Gonna Be My Girl" Jet
"Cold Hard Bitch" Jet
"Electric Dreams" Giorgio Moroder and Philip Oakley (Electric Dreams Soundtrack)
"Slide" Goo Goo Dolls
"Dance Hall Days" Wang Chung
"She" Green Day

She Loves Me Not
Scenario: She doesn't love you anymore. She loves him. Get the hell out of here. You're better off without her. Now go out with the guys and get trashed. Please drink responsibly, designate a driver.

"Snowman" The Clarks
"Separate Ways / Worlds Apart" Journey
"Nothing Compares to You" Me First and the Gimmie Gimmies
"The Bad Touch" Bloodhound Gang
"Sin Nombre" The Refreshments
"I'm Not Okay" My Chemical Romance
"The River" The Clarks cover
"Figured You Out" Nickelback
"Paint it Black" Rolling Stones
"Take on Me" Reel Big Fish cover of A-Ha
"Alcohol" Bare Naked Ladies
"Tempted" Squeeze
"A Little Respect" Erasure
"Who Knew" Pink
"Midlife Crisis" Faith No More
"Tributary Otis" The Refreshments
"Guilty" Matthew Ryan

Miami Vice Style City Drive
Scenario: Whether the sun is setting or has gone for the day, you still drive with your shades on and the top down. The neon blues and the shiny blacks hide the real reason for your trip as you just cruise the streets looking to cause some trouble.

"I Wear My Sunglasses" Corey Hart
"Numb" Linkin Park Also works when mixed with "Encore" by Jay Z
"California Love" Tupac / Dr. Dre
"Classical Gas" Mason Williams

Heading Out West, Slipping Down South
Scenario: Whether it be a high class job out in LA, or reclaiming your southern heritage by heading south to the homestead you will be on the road for awhile and need some appropriate traveling tunes. Also great for the last trip with childhood friends before growing up and becoming responsible

"Life is a Highway" Tom Cochrane
"Interstate Love Song" Stone Temple Pilots
"Take it Easy" Travis Tritt cover of The Eagles from Common Thread Album
"Send Me On My Way" Rusted Root
"Amos Moses" Jerry Reed
"Hell On Wheels" The Clarks
"Sweet Home Country Grammar" Mash up between Nelly / Lynyrd Skynyrd
"Tripping Billies" Dave Matthews Band
"Copperhead Road" Steve Earle
"Boys of Summer" The Ataris cover of Den Henley
"Gin and Juice" Hayseed Dixie cover of Snoop Dogg
"Working for the Weekend" Loverboy
"No Rain" Blind Melon
"Green River" Creedence Clearwater Revival

Pure Straight Up Rock
Scenario: No explanation needed. It's just straight up rock. Who needs a reason to rock out to classic hits on the highway or down to the store for a scratch ticket. Just hit play and drive, baby.

"Smokin" Boston
"Running Down a Dream" Tom Petty
"Don't Stop Believin'" Journey
"Dreams" Van Halen
"Into Your Arms" Journey (instrumental)
"Long Way To the Top" AC/DC
"Who's There" Smash Mouth
"China Grove" Doobie Brothers
"Ants Marching" Dave Matthews Band
"Einstein on the Beach" Counting Crows
"Head Like a Hole" Nine Inch Nails
"Leave the Change" Open Cage
"Shimmy Low" The Clarks
"Immigrant Song" Led Zeppelin
"Falling To Pieces" Faith No More
"Breakfast At Tiffany's" Deep Blue Something

Flip the tape over for Side A:

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Paging Alan Smithee

Part One in a series If I Ran Hollywood

"You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy"

You have to understand that I was a film and television fed child. While my parents did not let the "babysitter" raise me, it did serve its purpose as would reading the sports page to an athlete in training. From a wee age, I was convinced that I ought to be in pictures. I was going to be the next George Coppola Spielberg. I never made it past Ohio in my quest for Tinseltown. However, like an armchair quarterback, I am convinced that I could make the world Hollywood a better place without using enough plastic explosives to orbit Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Let's start with movies themselves. In the golden years of MGM and Warner Brothers, the premiere of a movie was an event. The quality of work that went into a One Sheet was regarded with as much respect as a Picasso or Van Gogh. Film was a medium in which master artists like John Ford and Orson Welles crafted tales of depth and breathtaking scenic beauty. That luster is now gone and Hollywood has been reduced to a machine which churns out crap like a foreign supplier to a Dollar Store. Movies were a place for the public to escape the world around them and live life through someone else's eyes on 15 foot screen. Nowadays they are a cell phone ringing, incessant talking, overpriced, hell hole that most people find a burden to patronize. Why deal with the crowd and high prices when it will be on DVD in two weeks.

The problem with Hollywood is that its run more like a business and less like the industry it once was. Too many people with their hands on the money and not enough artists with creative control have reduced it to a shameful place. Of course, the artists are no better themselves. Perhaps they tired of fighting the machine. They've been worn down to the nub creatively and just see a paycheck instead of a legacy.

Here are five ways I think Hollywood and the film industry could be better.

1. A Real Competition
At the beginning of the new millennium, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck started Project Greenlight. This was a competition by where novice screenwriters and directors could submit scripts and ideas to be judged by their peer members in hopes of landing a movie deal. The winning submission would be made for a million dollars. Great concept, but who wants to see a movie made by an unknown for a million dollars? This is a safe bet for producers because it's a win-win situation. If they get The Blair Witch or My Big Fat Greek Wedding, they get a huge ROI from the deal. If they get Freddy Got Fingered or Ishtar, it's only a million bucks which is a small loss in scheme of things. I say get your best and brightest filmmakers and give them a million dollars each. Have them go out and bring you an Oscar, if they can. I'd love to see what Spielberg or Singer could do if they had to rely on story and vision instead of actors and effects.

2. CGI is not a creative crutch
There are certain movies where CGI is acceptable as replacement for actual physical elements. There are even certain films or genres where CGI is acceptable as a style. However, Hollywood has become too complacent and lazy when it comes to filmmaking. Actors emote against a green screen rather than a real King Kong. Breathtaking stunts no longer require oxygen masks to drop from the ceiling of the theater when it's obvious that the actor is no danger of being injured by that explosion. At one time, John McClane jumped from the top of a building secured only with a fire hose. Now, he's walking on the back of a jet. One of the elements that made movies great in the olden days was the ability to pull off stunts and tricks without the use of computers to do all the work. This is one of the few reasons why I am hopeful with the new Indiana Jones movie. The film team has promised to limit the amount of CGI use in the movie to elements such as backdrops. Remember the heedful words of Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park "Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should." For every 300 or Sin City you get Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

3. Get a New Shtick
There are a few players in the game who have actual talent and appeal. Their problem is that they've gone to the well one too many times. While Elf and Old School were great outlets for Will Ferrell to use his man child look of awe and simple view of the world, Semi Pro and Talladega Nights are tired cookie cutter versions of the same formula, regardless of their appeal. Adam Sandler grew up and did Punch Drunk Love and Spanglish. Don't forget, the original class clown, Tom Hanks went from Bachelor Party and The Man With One Red Shoe to Philadelphia and Road to Perdition.

M Night Shyamalan is another example of an extremely creative director who needs to explore new ideas. Hire a screenwriter to do the translating and shoot a film that captures your storytelling style without the need for a "twist" Granted, Lady in the Water did not have a "twist" but it was still didn't hit the mark very well. It was one part Pirandello, two parts Neverending Story. He needs to do a straight forward, non supernatural or fantasy themed movie. Perhaps a comedy would suit him. Experiment and find another outlet for that wonderful storytelling and directional style.

4. Stop Remaking Things
Let me repeat that! STOP REMAKING THINGS. This goes for television shows from 20 years ago, movies from 20 years ago, and Japanese Horror flicks. We have The Ring, The Grudge, some weird thing called One Missed Call which I called The Ringtone, Pulse, and Shutter. These are all based on Asian horror films. Guess what? They're all the same damn movie. Every one of those movies either have or will have a sequel to them and that is just as bad as remaking the original in the first place.

Also, stop remaking zombie movies for the sake of having zombies. George Romero made three great and one not so bad "Dead" movies that weren't about zombies. Did you understand that statement? I'll explain. Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, and Land of the Dead were commentaries and critiques of American Culture. With, Night, he goes after the late 60's critique of American capitalism during the Vietnam War. In Dawn, he attacks American consumerism in a place that has become the Mecca of this idea, a shopping mall. Day goes on a rampage against Cold War and military mentality. We are not safe from ourselves. The real threat isn't a zombie horde, but the fact that two sides of our culture can't coexist together and will ultimately let the horde in to finish us. While Land was not as well crafted as previous installments, Romero takes on modern day America. The rich live in their ivory tower, shun the poor, and begin to forget what has happened outside their comfy walls. The marauding Dead Reckoning with its blazing fireworks depicts the "Shock and Awe" invasion of Iraq. Zombies may be dead and can be dangerous, but we are the bad guys here. The fact that these movies have the Living Dead as an antagonist is simply a device that embodies Romero's commentary. Remakes and Re-Imaginings are just out for the gore and horror and end up being identical to every single other zombie movie. The only film I consider a commentary on the commentary is Shaun of the Dead.

5. Where have you gone, James Cameron?
Seriously, where is this guy? He hasn't been around for a decade. Yeah, he produced that Solaris movie, but then he slid off the face of the Earth. Perhaps he fell into the deep of the ocean. His visuals in Aliens, Terminator, T2, and even Titanic were amazing. This guy took risks and it paid off in spades. The fact that he received so much criticism for his "King of the world" line at the Oscars is ridiculous. How would you feel if you were making the most expensive movie at the time and every one was convinced that it would sink just like its titular character? The fact that he came out on the other side smelling like a rose, no pun intended, would give me a great feeling of accomplishment. Having all that heaped on you, you would feel like you were standing on the bow of the greatest ship, near weightless, flying into the horizon. Then he just up and vanished. He's got two movies coming out, but it seems like we've been hearing about this Avatar forever. Actually, Jim Cameron is just a face for the old school director or filmmaker that seems to be missing from today. There has been a slew of bad, bad, films that have come out in recent years and it's high time the masters of the craft take control again and bring Hollywood back to its glory. Just as long as they abide by rules 1-4 we're ok.

I'm not saying I could direct a film better then Uwe Boll. I just think that Hollywood needs to stop thinking of itself as a way to suck every last dollar out of the American pocketbook. If you do your job well and with conviction, the people will come and plunk their money down. So, take notice Hollywood. The country is headed for a recession. The one place we had to escape these problems is quickly becoming part of the problem. Why not figure a way to get back in our good graces instead of causing your own demise? Do I have the answers? Maybe not, but I know the problem. Don La Fontaine. "In a world where quality cinema is slowly becoming extinct, one man tries to make a difference. That man is Mongo." Now that's a film I'd pay $10 to see.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Behind the lines: Theme Park Love Shack

Mongo, looking cool with folded arms....pfft!

That's me in 1997. It was my last day working at Cedar Point. I was so skinny back then. I was going to save this entry for a time closer to May but seeing as how the window of opportunity to secure a summer job is soon at hand, I figured it would be topical for today. By summer job, I mean the one you had when you were in college, perhaps even high school. For four straight summers, I worked in the Amusement Park industry. Two years were spent at a local theme park here in Southwestern Pennsylvania, called Idlewild. The last two were spent at Cedar Point. It's like going to a branch campus for two years of college and then transferring to main campus to get your degree. In essence, that's what working at a theme park is like, college without the books. But it is a lot more than that. Not to try and shine a derogatory light on the job set but knowing what I know now, I don't think I'd be alright with my daughter working there when she is of age. I will say upfront that I worked there in 1996 and 1997 and I'm sure a lot has changed since then. Whether it is for the better or not, I have no idea. Some things never change, especially the life of your typical college student.

I will forgo the years spent at Idlewild and focus directly on the big time. I got the job in April of 96 when it was apparent that I needed a summer job and really did not have want to work in the area of my hometown. I keep making the mistake of trying to get away from the area and it always comes back to haunt me. I was accepted and enrolled at Coastal Carolina University for all of one semester, running back home to the University of Pittsburgh. So, for some stupid reason, I thought this was going to be a different situation. Cedar Point is roughly a four drive from the Pittsburgh area, situated on the shores of Lake Erie west of Cleveland, Ohio. It is home to some 17 or more roller coasters and being a fan, I thought it would be an ideal place to make some cash for the summer. Since they employ around 4000 seasonal workers from all over the world, they provide lodging for those outside of the Sandusky, OH area. While, I'm not a boy scout, I thought it best to be prepared for any situation that should arise and insisted on packing my entire life into the back of my Dad's Dodge Pickup. That was mistake number one.

Employee Lodging
When I arrived, freshly dropped off by the turnip truck, in early May of 1996, I should have known I was in trouble. The main dormitory for men is an old hotel, built in 1915. While in its heyday it was probably luxurious accommodations, there has been little to no updating of the buildings since perhaps the 60's as it is promoted as a "summer camp style" facility by the company's website. In truth, this is a very accurate description. First off, there is no heat or air conditioning. My first morning waking up in my room was ridiculous. I could see my breath and the rooms were hardwood, throughout. Stacking four people in a room the size of a single dorm room did not leave a lot of room for furniture. Yes, they provide you with dressers and chairs. Nothing matches and looks like it was bought at a yard sale during the great depression. As a guy, it is recommended that you bring enough clothes for two weeks and do laundry often. Think what a normal teenage or twenty something girl would pack.

Keeping with the summer camp motif, bathrooms are communal and almost high school in nature. Nearly 400 employees are housed within the dorms and all share the same bathroom. There are about 10 bathroom stalls and 20 or more shower stalls. Finding a shower curtain, however is slim to none. There are bathrooms located throughout the buildings, yet the two or four that have a shower stall in them are usually kept padlocked, however, those of us resourceful enough found ways in and utilized the more private of accommodations to our own gain. I don't want to come off sounding like a typical knuckle dragging male and it's not like I have some fear of having to shower in a public setting, however, shower stalls with a curtain did get taken very quickly. Anyone who has worked there can tell you that there have always been rumors and some noted instances of the showers being used as a "bathhouse" meeting place. Usually, everyone will say that when a fire alarm was pulled in the middle of the night, it wasn't because there was a fire. That was called the "Cedar Dorms Shower Power Hour." Besides, the main reason I preferred to get a shower in one of the more private bathrooms was simple. The main hallway that led to the bathrooms took you past several windows. I didn't think much of it when I first moved in, but they appeared to be boarded up. At the end of May or early June, the boards were removed revealing screens and no glass. Again, because there was no air conditioning, they removed these boards to allow airflow. But on Lake Erie in the first half of June, the average temperature doesn't usually stay above 65 degrees. Because of the long walk, you took only the essentials, toiletries and a robe. When you were done and made the long walk back, you were still wet walking through a damp cold corridor. Not to mention you had no heat anywhere. From my dorm room, during my second year, there was a bathroom 20 feet away. Most people wondered why I got up and showered two to four hours before my shift. I did it so that I could beat the rush of those few individuals who knew we had a private shower.

The girls’ dorms, or Gold Dorms as they are called, were slightly better. They at least had carpeting in the rooms, yet it was no more than carpet you would find in an office. Again, they stacked four girls in a room which was considerably larger than ours and their bathrooms were centrally located on both floors giving them twice as many options. There was slightly better security attached to the girls' dorms and with good reason. Our dorm housed everything from an employee store to a medical clinic which saw a lot more traffic than a strict lodging facility. As we entered the dorm, we would have a color coded badge that designated which dorm we lived at. Simply flashing your badge or having it swiped identified you to front desk staff. However, the vast network of buildings attached by corridors and breezeways allowed for access to side doors and outside stairways that were neither manned nor secured. Sneaking someone into the dorm was child's play as my room was at the end of a hallway next to an open air connecting hallway complete with stairs to the surrounding yard. Not well lit and nearly invisible to everyone, it was easy to use this as a means to bypass security, especially if there was an ID check out front. This was sometimes commonplace to catch drunken employees who were underage. They had different IDs than those legal to drink. Kind of like a sobriety checkpoint for those on foot. In certain instances, they pulled your badge if you were really wasted as it was a violation of employee conduct. Whether in the park or out, you needed to be a model citizen who represented the ideals of the company.

My first year, I spent half of the summer in Cedars and half in the Commons Apartments. This was your deluxe apartment in the sky...or at least off point. The apartments were considered luxury accommodations and a there was a waiting list. I had the good fortune of knowing a guy who lived there and when a room in his place opened up, he reserved it for me and helped me move during my lunch hour, one afternoon. Apartment buildings were gender segregated by apartment which meant that once you were admitted into the complex, you had free reign between buildings. Each apartment had five bedrooms, two bathrooms with private showers, full kitchen, and living room for 16 people with cable and air conditioning. Yes, even though you are in an apartment, you still shared everything with 15 other people, usually four to a room. On occasion, housekeeping would take care of the kitchen, but I choose not to use it at all because of the sink that was piled high with dishes from day one of my residency. On one end of the complex there was also what we called the dungeons. They were strictly female at the time and mirrored the setup of the Gold Dorms. They were called the dungeons because of the gray cinderblock construction inside and out. These were the closest to college dorms you could get. All off Point accommodations required either personal transportation or employee shuttle to commute to work as you were not allowed to walk or ride a bike on the two lane causeway that separated the peninsula from the rest of the off park property.

Regardless of where you lived, you paid to live at Cedar Point. Dorms ran about $16-$17/week while the apartments were a premium at $24-$31/week. This meant that a single room in any facility with a maximum of 4 person occupancy generated anywhere between $259-$500 a month in rent. This was deducted from your paycheck and frankly, I think they made out like bandits. I figured, even if I was going to live in a hole, I would make it my own, which meant my whole world came with me. That first summer I came prepared with enough clothes for a month, a tiny fridge, television, radio, and the headboard my Dad built for my dorm room at school. The Park recommends you bring the following, a pillow, clip on reading lamp, fan, alarm clock/radio, and padlock for lockers at certain dorms. Boy, was I over packed. I ended up leaving all of my stuff at the dorms for another month until the Fourth of July when I took a week to come home. My parents were reluctant to say I told you so, but they had every right as they said I would be a fool for taking so much.

The Social Culture
While I could expound over several paragraphs the various jobs and duties which beset an employee working at the park, I won't. All I can tell you is that most jobs are performed while standing over periods of up to 12 hours, you don't get overtime, and for completing your "contract" you received a bonus amount per hour paid out sometime around October. It used to be that you were paid $0.50 for every hour worked up to 200 hours. After that it was $1.00 per hour. If you figured on a 600 hour summer, you stand to gain $500 in bonus money. At the time I was making $5.10 an hour so this was usually what amounted to another paycheck. I think the current rate is $7.00/hour and $.35/hour bonus. It roughly works out to be $1000 more now than 10 years ago. That's not much more considering inflation and cost of living increase. That is all I will say about the job. The nature of the environment and the mindset of your average employee are far more interesting.

Anthropologists could probably earn doctorates from study Theme Park Employee behavior. Just like there is a switch that flips on the normal, intelligent, human being, rendering them unable to follow simple directions or at least be aware that they are walking way too slow for people around them, the same can be said for the normal, grounded in good behavior college student who becomes a drunken dog in heat the moment they process in as an employee. The social nature of the park and the employees within promotes a camaraderie that extends beyond working hours into their free time. Some of the benefits of working in that type of setting were extremely attractive to someone like me. I am a self proclaimed roller coaster junkie. The opportunity to work in the park while spending my off hours with free access to all the rides is enough to make me a happy camper. While, you had to pay to play mini golf, or ride the go karts, the water park was in the bounds of play just like the rides. Still, being in the park meant I had to abide by the rules. I had to wait in line just like everyone else and at times it wasn't worth it to waste a day off waiting in line for a ride that would be there every other day of the summer. Ride nights were incorporated to give employees a break from the crowds. Usually set after hours, it provided us a chance to ride our favorite rides without dealing with snotty kids and your typical other park goer. Other activities such as movie nights, intramural sport events, and various group functions allowed a variety of escapism for the more demure and quiet park employee.

However, for every bright spot there is a dark and seedy underbelly of degradation that would make residents of Sodom and Gomorrah say, "Not in our backyard." While it is not often promoted, if you look you can find a world of vice and the occasional wet t shirt contest. In the summer of 1996, I had finally reached that milestone age where I was legal to drink. Directly off point and within walking distance of the dorms was a small bar with a fenced in courtyard. This was considered an employee only bar called Louie's Lounge, lovingly referred to as "Loser's" by most employees. From the moment you get your hand stamped "YES" for 21 and up, or "NO" for underage, you know what really happens here. Everyone crowds around a picnic table out in the courtyard while the one "YES" man heads to the bar and gets a open cardboard box, usually used for cases of cheap soda, filled with 12 oz. cups of shitty beer at $.25 each on quarter draft night. The "YES" man then takes the box back to the table where a bunch of "NO" people partake in the brew. Not bad for $6, huh? If you are good with your cash, you can spring for a 32 oz. Electric Lemonade or Long Island Ice Tea for $4.00. And for those who like doing a shooter from a test tube, there's the girl who is just hot enough to swindle you into paying twice as much as you would if you got it from the bar. The dance floor, cramped and crowded with sweaty bodies, moves as one to the music being pumped though the two big speakers that has caused me substantial hearing loss over my two years employed there. Elsewhere a fight breaks out over a questionable proximity in dancing space between a young man and someone else's date and both men are escorted out in accordance with the "You throw. You go.", policy. This also doubled for instances of not being able to hold your liquor and throwing up.

It's now 1:30AM and you have just a little time left to find that Ms. Right...or at least Ms. Right Now. You scan the dance floor for the one group of girls who have little sobriety left and make your best case as an object of beer goggles. Applying just the right amount of charm and additional alcohol, you score your date for the morning and make your way to the exit. Romance and foreplay are non issue as you find yourself dry humping your way to the car. Once you arrive at your dorm room destination you make the conscience decision to either just crash together with some light necking or test the limits of your roommates' ability to sleep through a nuclear explosion and go for the gold. After getting maybe an hour sleep, you have to shuffle yourself or your date out the door. You're mindful of the time because dawn brings out the catcallers all waiting for the walk of shame to begin. Everyone knows your business because they saw you the night before making your move. Rinse, lather and repeat, usually with someone different the next night.

While this is not earth shattering news to anyone who has ever gone to college, the microcosm of an Amusement Park environment lends itself to looser moral standings than that of its university counterpart. For one, it's summer break. Yes, you have the responsibility to run a multi-million dollar piece of machinery that has the capability of shooting human beings into the atmosphere at 60mph, but it's not like you're being graded on it. Mom and Dad aren't paying for you to work there. Think about that next time you get on an inverted roller coaster, like The Raptor, and you notice that the ride crew is in bad need of visine. Second, you are a seasonal employee. That means that for 12-16 weeks you will be thrown into the mix with 4000 other college age students who may never see you again. It's like Las Vegas mentality. You hook up and you leave. There's no sense of accountability. In three months, I'll never see these people again, who cares how I conduct myself. We even had a system by which to measure the hookup. I'm not even talking about the look or performance of the person. I'm talking about the distance. We called it the Shack Scale. This was a couple years before the term, "Hooking up" became the standard lingo for one night stands. Besides, "hooking up" doesn't give you a clear picture on what happened. It's too vague. We had the scale to give the degree of "shacking" that occurred. You would overhear a conversation in the employee cafeteria or around work areas that included the phrases "Yeah, I heard he picked her up at the bar and it was a Shack 1?" "That guy is such a skeeze. He had a 4 with three girls from my team in one week."

Shack Scale of 1996
Shack 1 = made out and spent the night
Shack 2 = heavy petting with exposed flesh
Shack 3 = Latin terminology....uh, oral sex.
Shack 4 = The Deed

By my second summer, we upped the ante and added an additional point for every person present in the room at the time of the shack. This only counted if you reached a four as it was harder to be quiet on a metal bed frame. 10 was the highest ever awarded as you could have roomed with 3 guys and they could have all had girls with them that evening. However, if you left before 7AM, none of it counted. This was the equivalent to crossing your finger behind your back when you swore to do something. It didn't negate the actual act but if you left before 7, you could beat the walk of shame and deny it ever happened. There have a lot of us that have secretly set someone's alarm for 6:50 once we sobered up enough to realize what or more to the point, who, we were doing.

Employee Health
Apart from the obvious health concerns outlined in the preceding, the ability to maintain good health was a harder than getting that stupid metal rod all the way to the bottom of a Wacky Wire game. In January of 1996, I weighed in at 214 pounds. At 5'10" that puts me a little on the pudgy side....ok more than a little. I did nothing out of the ordinary to lose any weight and as far as I knew it, I still weighed 214 pounds when I went to work at the park. In July, I weighed 177 pounds. I didn't exercise or change my eating habits. I got sick. In late May, I was working at an exposed game stand and during an especially damp day had gotten sick. I remember only wearing my uniform which consisted of a shirt and shorts. If available, I wore a windbreaker or pants over top, but at this point, I only had the windbreaker seen on my coworker in the picture at the top. The wind whipped down the midway at me sending me into an hour long shiver fest later that night. Run down, malnourished, and continually damp conditions when walking to the shower (The boards were gone from the windows allowing cold and wet air to breach the dorm hallways) caused me to contract walking pneumonia. I had no idea I was sick as I could still function normally. My mini vacation home in July confirmed my illness as well as the fact that I had lost 37 pounds in two months time. I was a strong antibiotic which made me extremely sick and I decided that it was in my best interest to quit early to fully recover before school. It may sound like a wuss move, but my health was directly related to my area of study and I needed to be on top of my game in order to handle the long hours.

Even those of us who took the most basic precautions to stay healthy would notice that within a couple weeks of employment we would lose our voice. It was almost like clockwork. Most employees sought out the medical clinic to be treated for pharyngitis. Until I worked there, I had never heard of the ailment, but I ended up with it my second year. When your job requires you to talk to guests, constantly, it is worst condition to have. It hurts to swallow and anything acidic, like orange juice or tomato sauce, burns like the hinges of hell. While no one is completely certain why the illness is a prevalent one among employees, most of us will claim that the number of cases diagnosed could be a direct result of the poor air quality in the area. Anyone who has been there can attest to noticing a foul smell in the air upon entering the Sandusky region. Do a search on Google for "Sandusky Quarry Smell." You'll see what I mean. Of course, it could be the fact that everyone and their brother is snogging everyone else making the park a very large Petri dish. I stand by my assertion as there is evidence that pollutants or chemical substances can cause the infection.

The Not So Bad
Debauchery and doctor visits aside, we did have a lot of fun toiling away our summers for little pay. One of the local movie theaters reserved some Monday nights as Cedar Point employee only nights allowing us discounted rates and complete availability to the joint. I remember going in a group of about 20 to see Independence Day on July 8th and then going back again the next Monday to see it another time. Otherwise, the workday for us consisted of working nearly a 12 hour shift in the park, going directly to the bar until last call, a sobering, grease filled meal at Denny's, then on to Meijer, a Walmartesque market chain, where we would spend three hours finding one or two items we needed while playing football in the aisles until way after 4AM. After that, we'd return to the dorm to crash for a couple hours and then start the whole process over. At least once a summer, we'd all schedule a day off and make trip to Put-in Bay. You could tell when park employees were there as most of the locals weren't prone to having demolition derbies with golf carts. Hey, as long as you had friends, you could never say it was boring. The friends I made at the park were some of the best I ever had. I still keep in touch with a good friend, who I consider like a brother. He was even a groomsman in my wedding and makes a trip once a year or so to visit. Because of our friendship, most people at the park would confuse the two of us with each other.

Sure, I endured a lot working there. After those two summers, I continually got bronchitis every winter from the damp conditions. Later, I found out I had developed asthma and began treating it and have been bronchitis free. Still, if I was that age again, I'd probably work there as would my friends. It was one of those experiences that defines your being, it ultimately makes you hate people who go to an amusement park. I've learned some like skills from my time there, like how to properly win at Bowler Roller without going broke. Since we were not allowed to play the games as employees, we'd clean out competing parks during a road trip. In the years that have passed, perhaps the things discussed here have become commonplace and accepted to the point where I'm just not in touch with the youth of America. Maybe it's better, maybe it's worse. Who's to say? One man's bedlam is another man's Babylon. One day, my own daughter may seek to work in an amusement park for the summer and I have no right to deny her the experience. However, if I ever hear her refer to anything with the word "shack" followed by a number, I'll ground her till the only income she can get is social security. I'm as serious as a heart attack on a roller coaster.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Zombie, a Hooker, and Tiger Woods walk into a bar.

Part Four of a Series entitled All Your Free Time Are Belong To Us

In this, my fourth entry on how I've found ways to waste time and money, I've decided to condense the Fifth through Seventh generation consoles into one entry.

Around 1995, I was just beginning to get ahead of the curve in college. I spent my first semester at Coastal Carolina University which offered beaches and parties always at an arm's length. While, I may have had my share of wild nights, I did manage to land on the Dean's list that first and only semester of enrollment. For whatever reason, I decided to transfer from a institution that had 5000 students enrolled to one that had just around five times that amount. To say, I experienced a little culture shock is an understatement. I wound up sliding into academic probation and had to dig myself out over the next four and a half years, just to graduate with a B average.

While on that road to redemption I met and befriended a man by the name of Ray. He and I were both active in the Theatre Department. Discounting the fact that Ray was not a Theatre major, he was a hell of an actor and all around show man. Hailing from the Philadelphia area, he fronted a band called Open Cage which, like so many other great bands, never got its just deserts. Perhaps it was by design. Maybe they didn't want the success of their 90's counterparts. Regardless of their success, Ray once again, proved that there was more than meets the eye with him. As much as Ray could act, the man could sing as well, if not better. He lived in the Litchfield Towers until graduation, as did I, and along with another friend, Jeff, we burned the midnight oil on his Sony Playstation.

Until this point, my experience with gaming consisted of five consoles, the Atari, ColecoVision, Intellivision, NES, and Sega Genesis. I also spent time gaming on a computer but until that point, my biggest accomplishment was staying up all night in a campus computer lab playing Doom II. Ray, who lived one floor below me was in one of my classes, a real doozy called Magic, Medicine, and Science. It was taught by this George Plimpton-sequel sounding professor with some sort of tic that caused him to continually tug at his shirt as he spouted off about Saturn being a cube. I don't know. It had something to do with Kepler and Play-Doh. Don't ask.

While, I can't remember which planet was a dodecahedron or a tetrahedron, I do remember going down to Ray's room to study for one of our loopy tests. When I entered his room, I saw it, the Sony Playstation. Immediately, the books took a backseat to gaming. Who needs cubes or octahedrons when you have triangle and circle buttons controlling your every move. Shortly thereafter, Jeff came knocking and the three of us settled into position to tackle Sony's new escape from reality.

In the past, gaming had been more about racing each other or bashing each other on screen, the Playstation offered us one player titles with multi player roles. Ray manned the controls while Jeff navigated keeping maps of the areas we had already conquered. I was given the moniker of Chief Science Officer responsible for coming up with solutions to problems we faced such as puzzles in a game. In one particular instance we had been racking our brains over a newly acquired bow and arrow in Kings Field. Jeff and Ray went round and round on how to operate this thing. Every button Ray pushed would simply drop an arrow right off the front, wasting it. Out of nowhere, I suggested holding down the button as if to pull the bow string back. Voila! Now we could take out pesky guards and monsters from a distance.

That's how it went for a few weeks. We'd find some obect like a key in the game, Jeff would remember that it went to a door way back on the other side of the map, and on occasion, I'd offer up some "outside the box" logic into how to solve something. One of our biggest freak-out moments came when Ray started playing Resident Evil. Up to then, my scariest gaming experience came from having the volume turned up way too loud while playing Friday the 13th on the NES. I walked into a cabin and Jason came out of nowhere. With the sound at a ear shattering level, his appearance brought with it a freakishly loud music cue that made me wet myself. Resident Evil offered the survival horror genre a shot or adrenaline. Granted, maneuvering through a darkly lit mansion littered with zombies with very little ammunition to defend yourself presented a challenge. However, nothing was as jaw dropping as walking back into the monster free mansion, recently cleared of zombies, only to find a new threat facing you. Because of the camera angles we could only hear the footsteps approaching. Just out of sight the menace lurked and then suddenly, the footsteps quickened and a hunter appeared. With a shrill scream, it leapt into the air and decapitated our protagonist in one fell swoop. The three of us let out a collective, "AAAAAHHHH!" as our headless Chris Redfield slumped to the floor and the blood stained words "YOU DIED" appeared on the screen. Ray quickly bought a game shark and we pretty much coasted through the rest of the game until May. Even with the game shark, the game was still hard to beat.

When Ray graduated, the Playstation was gone and I was forced to actually do homework the following semester While, I wasn't exactly what you would call a hardcore gamer, I did really miss the late night gaming sessions with my friends. During the summer of 1997 one of my roommates at Cedar Point owned one and once again, I was able to spend mindless hours hacking, slashing, and shooting my way through level after level of the two games he owned. After graduation I focused on getting a job, so that eventually I could buy my own Playstation and get to gaming. In 1999, I found a used Playstation at ebgames for $125 with the purchase of three games. I couldn't pass it up. Two of the purchased games were titles that we toiled over before Ray graduated. I bought a couple of sequel games and rented others at the local video stores, finishing most within the allotted rental period. What I didn't know was that the following year the Playstation would usurped by its sequel. As frugal or cheap that I am, I was unwilling to pay the $300 sticker price and would be content with my original model for two more years.

Around Christmas of 2002, I was still plugging away at my Playstation with gusto. Renting games from the local video store and finding those rare classics on eBay became a thrifty way to keep my free time occupied. But then, it happened. The one thing that would shake the death grip on my wallet and force me to buy a PS2 came to pass. It was the release of one of the greatest games of all time, Grand Theft Auto III. I was sitting in my townhouse, watching television, one night when the Puccini aria O Mio Bambino Caro came on in the background of the trailer for GTA III. I was mesmerized. "Must buy a PS2. Must kill hooker with taxi cab!" I looked at my current financial status and figured there was no way I was going to be able to afford one. It wasn't a necessity, although it felt like it was. There are more worthwhile things to spend money on than a game system. After all, I was beginning to get hints that maybe I should think about buying an engagement ring for my then girlfriend. If I walked in the door with a PS2, I'd be wearing it. Even at $199 in 2002, it was still beyond what I wanted to pay for it.

Trailer for Grand Theft Auto III

I turned to the one resource I could count on to make the decision for me, eBay. After searching through tons of listings for PS2s priced around $199 to $225 with games included. They were games that I could care less about, but still, if I was going to pay near retail price for a PS2, I'd rather buy new and rent games. Then, I found it. There was a slightly used model with two controllers for $130 with little time left on the auction. I stood ready to snipe the auction at the last minute, securing my buy at a minimal price. Within two weeks, my game system was tucked neatly and discreetly into my entertainment center and I was off to ebgames to find a used copy of GTA III. That was my deal. I never bought games at retail price, I always bought used. There was no sense in me paying $49.95 for a game when I could find a previously owned copy for half the price. Usually, with pre-owned games, you got a better guarantee from the store which would switch out copies if they became defective.

There I was, ready to be blown away by a 3D game environment that offered little in the way of a moral compass. I ran over pedestrians and fled cops with total abandonment, stunned at the freedom to explore and wreak havoc with no real consequences. You didn't die. You simply were wasted and appeared at a hospital with a little less money and all weapons removed. The same went for being "busted." Even though most heinous of offences were relegated to removal of weapons and chump change deducted from your funds. With the lack of accountability and linear progress, you could literally spend days just making money from legitimate means such as taxi, ambulance, and fire truck missions or you could take money and weapons from gang members, pedestrians, and prostitutes just by killing them with as little as a few punches. However, it was hard not to break some laws, albeit traffic and some pedestrian deaths, in order to accomplish the legitimate methods.

The influence of Grand Theft Auto III's open-ended game style and expansive 3D environment on gaming created a whole new realm of escapism for me with new titles copying and improving on the model. However, nothing compared to the original and as the third title in the GTA III era was released, I was prepared to pay retail price for a brand new copy. When Grand Theft Auto San Andreas hit the market in October of 2004, I waited only a month to buy it. I was newly married and had just returned from my honeymoon when I walked into Best Buy and plunked down $49.99 for it. My wife and I opted to give each other $50 as a wedding present and mine was gone before it was able to get a single crinkle in my pocket.

While, I continued to rent games every so often, I owned probably ten titles by 2007. My three biggest time wasters was The Grand Theft Auto, Star Wars Battlefront, and oddly enough Tiger Woods PGA Tour franchises. While not a big sports genre fan, I really got into golfing video games way back when NES Golf was one of the three games we had in my dorm room at Coastal Carolina University. During my second tour of duty at Cedar Point in 1997, we only had two games and one was a "pre" Tiger Woods PGA Tour golf game for the original Playstation. I had become a huge fan of Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2002 after renting it on a whim. While every year brought with it a new title, I still relied on my 2002 copy to keep me occupied, even though I had maxed out every skill and beaten the game more than twice.

As game consoles continued to become available during the Sixth Generation era, I resisted the temptation to add a new system to my collection. Dropping hundreds of dollars on a system that had mostly the same game offerings across platforms seemed like a silly waste of resources. I would rather max out the gaming potential of my PS2 without maxing out my wallet. By 2006, I was aware that a Playstation 3 was in the works but couldn't see myself getting in line at midnight to buy one when it hit the shelves. Besides, the nature of the beast is that a new system gets released within weeks, maybe months, all sorts of bugs and technical issues crop up. Sony was nothing if not predictable. I had to eventually replace my original PS2 with the slim model due to the "dreaded disc read error" problem and I lacked the ability to fix the system on my own after several tries. Technical glitches aside, I was also not ready to drop anywhere from $400 to $600 on a system when I was about to lose the one thing needed to play, free time. The PS3 hit the American market on November 17, 2006. This was two days after my wife informed me she was pregnant. The news shifted my priorities as well as my stomach, directly into my ass. When little Bailey was born in July, I had no time to catch up on my DVR recordings let alone play my Playstation 2 games. This was my version of the video game crash of 1983. Whereas in 1983, an overabundance of console choices and lack of programming quality within the market led to the decline of the industry, my overabundance of responsibilities and lack of free time led me to the decline of my gaming.

During the last half of 2007 I spent most of my time at home taking care of my daughter along with other household duties. I didn't adopt the more outdated lifestyle of husband and father where I brought home the paycheck and my wife took care of the house and kids. I was a full time dad from day one, knee deep in 2 AM feedings and dirty diapers. The few times I was able to watch television while holding my little girl led me to drool as much as she did. I was constantly taunted by the commercials for Grand Theft Auto IV, which was to be released by October. It was fate. Three years after the release of GTA San Andreas, I was being mocked by the game controller shaped carrot dangling in front of me. Again, I would be victim to the tail wagging the dog. I wanted to buy a whole new game system based on the release of one game. After some quick math and the appearance of moths in my wallet I was ready to give up the ghost. That is until I once again turned to my old stand by, eBay. Listing after listing auctioned the PS3 at $300 or more. Even worse was the availability of different systems based on hard drive storage left me scratching my head as to which was the better buy. Then, I found one listing stating that I could get the PS3 for free. Knowing full well there was a catch; I humored the seller and at least looked at his auction. He wasn't selling a PS3 at all. He simply stated that I could go to a website and get one for free. I didn't see the harm in looking, so I took a chance and clicked the link. I had heard about these types of websites before but always dismissed them as scams. Yet, here I was doing more and more research into the company that hosted the site. Incentivized Freebie Websites, as they were called, were able to provide rewards for completing certain requirements. With this particular PS3 site, all I had to do was try out a service like or for free, and then get 10 people to do the same using my unique referral link. Once that was completed, the parent company would take the money they received from the referral sign ups at the retailers and use it to send me a brand new game system. I started doing some simple advertising on bulletin boards and even eBay, which was considered illegal as it was spam, and eventually started to make some headway. After joining a couple of message boards I found people willing to do the sign ups. What I didn't find was that it was going to be free. Technically, it is considered free because you can sign up for a free trial and get 10 friends and family members as referrals. This isn't easy and it is highly improbable since most think it is a scam. I opted to pay people online a small amount for each referral. This sped up the process tremendously. October came and went and the release of GTA IV was pushed back to 2008. This gave me more time to get my referrals and allowed me to finally complete the process by Christmas. In all, I spent four months gathering referrals and shelled out a total of $100. That put me at 25% of the cost of store bought unit and $25 less than what I paid in 1999 for my original used Playstation. It was my best deal ever. It even got the honor of being the subject of my first ever blog post. The only drawback was that I ended up with a 40GB model which didn't have compatibility with my PS2 games and the release for GTA IV got pushed back again until the end of April. Still, I finding ample enough amount of playability with my PS3, downloading demos, blasting away Lego stormtroopers, and surfing the Internet right from my couch.

As I race headlong into my 30's with a daughter by my side, I am reminded at how when I was a kid I was a video game freak. I wonder if my child will embrace video games the way I did. If the future produces a son, perhaps he will, instead. Either way, I'm convinced that I will try and at least stay one step behind the current technology, always keeping a watchful eye on my pocketbook. By the time any child of mine is ready for college, I fear that I will be forced to buy an additional game system so that we can play together online. At the point, systems could run well over $1000 a piece and be made of some space age polymer instead of conventional materials. It's only going to be a topic of discussion, however, if my kid does well in school. While I don't want to pay $1000 for undeserved game system, something I'm sure my cheap nature will forbid, anyway, I don't want to give the child a reason to slack off in their studies. I felt the sting of being in a parent free zone in college and it was one of the factors that led my slide into the academic abyss for two semesters. I didn't have someone immediately available to ground or admonish me for my behavior. But, if I'm lucky and my kid does became a gamer like myself, I'll be able to frag them repeatedly in death matches if they get out of line. I don't care if they are 3000 miles away.

Mongo's Top 20 Games for Playstation 1-3
Again, I preface this like I did with the NES entry as I have never played any Final Fantasy games.

  1. Grand Theft Auto series (PS2/PS3) What can I say about the series that you don't already know? The sole reason I've stayed with Sony.
  2. Resident Evil series (PS1-PS3 titles) Survival Horror thy name is Zombies run amuck.
  3. The Thing (PS2) Frightful and faithful to John Carpenter's movie, pretty much the closest thing to a sequel.
  4. Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction (PS2) Lucasarts Grand Theft Panzer, awesome military 3D environment.
  5. Star Wars Lego: Complete Saga (PS3) Nothing better than Star Wars Lego based death.
  6. Kingsfield series (PS1/PS2) The series that began it all for me and Sony. Fully rendered 3D FPS environment.
  7. Star Wars Battlefront II (PS2) 2 steps forward in game play but 1 step back with the loss of Bespin and Yavin levels. I still play part 1 for those.
  8. Manhunt (PS2) Sick and twisted fun, another one of those games that has you playing with the lights on and the therapist on speed dial.
  9. Tiger Woods 2002 (PS2) Still my favorite in the series despite the dated features.
  10. Silent Hill Series (PS1/PS2) Where Resident Evil defined survival horror, Silent Hill removed the survival and just gave you the willies.
  11. Monopoly (PS1) A Classic for a classic.
  12. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PS1) Downloading from the PS Network, I finally get to play this gem.
  13. Resistance Fall of Man (PS3) Wow! just freaking wow!
  14. Castlevania: Lament of Innocence (PS2) Where it all began for the Belmont Clan, makes up for Castlevania 64
  15. Hi Octane (PS1) While I owned it for PC, the PS1 version had more levels. Great racing game. Thanks again, Ray
  16. Simpsons Hit and Run (PS2) Grand Theft Homer. Fans of both GTA and The Simpsons will love it.
  17. Evil Dead Fistfull of Boomstick (PS2) I love me some Ash. Even better with one liners and a boomstick.
  18. Crash Bandicoot (PS1) One of the originals and still a great title
  19. Uncharted (PS3) Tombraider meets Indiana Jones in a lush environment.
  20. Midnight Club II (PS2) Fast and the Furious by design but great game play.

The 5 Worst I've played

  1. Space Griffon (PS1) Lame, just the suckiest suckfest that ever did suck.
  2. Resident Evil: Survivor (PS1) While I included the entire series at number 2, this FPS offering just doesn't live up to the genre
  3. True Crime: Streets of LA (PS2) Tries to be GTA, ends up DOA. Too vast an environment and the bullet time feature is a rip off of Max Payne.
  4. Grand Theft Auto Liberty City Stories (PS2 port) While I could never say enough good things about a Grand Theft Auto title, this one which was ported from the PSP did little to offer a new experience with the series. The music was subpar, voice actors were unknown, and all the game elements from San Andreas were now gone. Vice City Stories made up for this ten fold.
  5. Tiger Woods 08 (PS3) Jury is still out on this as I am having considerable trouble with hooks and slices. The ability to use your own face for your player isn't the only lifelike feature. Mimics my real golf ability, I guess

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