Archive for September 2007

September 26th, 2007

A Burning Desire

“I don’t have enough eccentric hobbies.”

I suppose this is what I was thinking as I graced the door of “Pipes by George” last Friday.

Sure, recently I’ve both: a) taken up ukulele and b) acquired a set of mutton-chops (which, contrary to popular belief, require almost daily care and maintenance), but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more out there. What else to try? Surfing? Too commonplace. Bonsai-trimming? Too nerdy. Alligator-wrestling? Too likely to result in an untimely death….

I should probably note that “Pipes by George” is one of the coolest retail establishments…ever. Bar-none. It’s tucked in a run-down little “shopping center” just west of the Raleigh capital under two stories of apartments and between a mediocre chinese restaurant and a tattoo parlor. The whole place has that “some of this stuff has been sitting on the shelves since 1962”/“grandma’s attic” vibe, while simultaneously feeling like it gets new inventory regularly and maintains a small, but loyal clientele of tobacco connoisseurs…who are completely unaware of the advances in smoking that have been made since the late 1800s.

I’ve patronized “Pipes by George” once before, when I bought an old Zippo at an antique store, and I needed to get it up and running. It wasn’t holding a flame and required a new wick. Before I continue, you should know this lighter is sort of sissy. It bears a floral pattern and it’s one of those smaller, mini-sized ones, but I like it and I’ll stick up for my purchase by saying: a) it’s a for-real, brand-name Zippo, b) it has kind of a manly-looking floral pattern (Which I know is kind of an oxymoron, but ya’ll know what I mean, right? Right?), c) it has the initials “BAB” engraved on it, which is a possible phonetic spelling of my name and d) the person running the place only wanted $4 for it. Anyway, back at “Pipes by George,” I had came face-to-face with the man himself. George is probably about 60 and is relatively slight in stature, but quite scrappy and grizzled in appearance. One would not have trouble imagining him as an old sea captain. I guess what I’m getting at here is, if I had to venture a guess, I’d say the only thing that could cut George is George; George only has two speeds: walk and kill; when George goes swimming, he doesn’t get wet, the water gets George; etc. So I had to show George my sissy Zippo. I was half expecting him, upon seeing it, to: a) pummel my pansy ass and b) throw me out of his store, causing me to sprawl out onto the street and fling it onto the pavement, where it would skid to a stop in front of the bikers who hang out by the tattoo parlor, and who would then finish me off.

The actual transaction was nothing like that. “Nice little lighter,” he said warmly. He looked it over as if it was the first time he’d ever laid eyes on a Zippo such as this — which there was no way it was — and somehow managed to do it without a hint of sarcasm or insincerity. From behind the counter, he inspected it and determined the correct wick. He put on his old-fashioned reading glasses, dug into his rusty toolbox, selected a well-worn flathead screwdriver, and disassembled ol’ BAB in a few seconds. At one point, he consulted a dusty, vaguely-biblical Zippo manual, which was the size of a phone book, and informed me that, according to the markings on the bottom, the lighter was manufactured in 1977.

During our time together I noted a few things about George: a) he clearly loved what he did, b) he had been doing it for a very long time and knew everything there was to know about his field, and c) he didn’t mind taking a minute to relay to a complete stranger who was spending no more than $1.50 in his store, a few bits of superfluous information that only someone like him would possess. How can you not take a liking to someone like this?

As he was ringing me up, George said, verbatim, “Is there anything else we can set you up with?” This was just a way of saying “Is that all you need?” but he was so damned amiable, I came very close to saying “You know what, George? Set me up with a starter kit! I need to start smoking a pipe!” I didn’t. Then.

That encounter stayed with me (obviously) and last weekend, over a year later, I returned, looked George in the eye, and said, “You know what, George? Set me up with a starter kit! I need to start smoking a pipe!”

Why now? Well I was mostly motivated by an idea I have for a costume for Halloween, which demands a pipe and which I will not be telling you any more about. You will just have to wait.

What I will give you is this:

This is all your fault, George.

The fact that it’s a corncob is winning me over, despite my original determination that wood was the way to go. My plan was to get one of the less-expensive wooden types, but it turns out the “less-expensive” wooden types start at $35 — way too much for something I’m basically just attempting for a larf. The corncob and some standard pipe tobacco only added up to $6, which is much more tolerable.

And right now I’m glad I didn’t shell out any more than that, because I’m finding smoking a pipe to be very difficult. I don’t know how all those sitcom dads in the ’50s did it. No matter how I pack the tobacco or how frequently I take a draw, I can’t seem to keep the thing lit for a full minute. George warned me about this, of course. In his laid-back manner, he explained to me that it I’d probably have this problem at first and that I could come back and see him any time and he’d check out my technique and give me pointers. Stupid, kindly shop-owner. “It just takes practice,” he shrugged. That phrasing caught me off guard, as the idea of “practicing” — concentrating and honing a skill set — that a) contributes less to society than anything else I can think of at the moment and b) is really bad for your health, seems quite perverse. I immediately envisioned a smoke-engulfed living room filled with aspiring pipe-smokers in gray sweatsuits, lighting their bowls to “Eye of the Tiger.”

All I wanted was to be able to sit down on a given evening, in my man-chair, and calmly and serenely puff for a good 15–20 minutes, thus allowing me to have epiphanies about life, etc. Yet I can now tell, to get to the point where I don’t have to fumble with a tamper and a box of matches every 20 seconds, this endeavor truly is going to require serious dedication.

Perhaps the pipe isn’t for me. Perhaps it’s time to locate a bonsai…or even some alligators.

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September 20th, 2007

My Hero

I actually think this video game Guitar Hero might produce a new wave of killer musicians. Or at least a new wave of people with the capacity to be killer musicians.

I had the chance to play it for the first time recently. Being a halfway decent guitar player, I feel qualified to say that learning Guitar Hero is nothing like learning the actual guitar. However, being someone who, at various points in his life, has tried to learn songs on the drums, piano, mandolin, ukulele, banjo, harp, accordion, etc., I feel qualified to say that learning Guitar Hero is like learning a brand new musical instrument. ’Cause the principles of picking up any instrument are basically the same. You need focused eye-to-brain-to-hand connections, an understanding of how passages fit into a piece rhythmically, and an ability to memorize and repeat.

Guitar Hero touches on all these aspects, as well as instilling the most important lesson of all: if you can push past the point when you just want to take a framing hammer and smash the stupid, uncompromising instrument you’re trying to learn into a million tiny pieces, you can get to a place where you can do some pretty cool things with it.

And, well, this is as far as my analysis of Guitar Hero can go. I have no idea how it holds up as a video game. I have no points of comparison because — this is probably going to sound weird, but— I have only played video games a handful of times in my life. When it comes to game systems, I am one of those confused, hairy ape-men from the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I hobble up and nudge the Xbox or PlayStation or whatever with my finger, then when a disc drive opens or something, I freak out and and run to the corner of the room. As my seven-year-old female cousin enters the room, pops in a game, and seats herself in front of TV to play, I observe and grunt to myself uneasily.

I have no idea why I’m like this, but I think it may have something to do with, oh, I don’t know: MY PARENTS NOT BUYING ME A NINTENDO DURING MY CHILDHOOD.

Crazy, right? And I begged and pleaded for one. Everyone I knew had one. Mom, Dad, can we please get a Nintendo? “Nintend-no.” So while everyone else my age was in their den, absorbing the ins-and-outs of gaming, I was playing outside like a schmuck. They were blowing up buildings; I was digging purposeless holes in the backyard. They were blasting ducks out of the sky; I was keeping frogs in leaky aquariums. They were jumping over lakes of acid; I was running down the street with one of those hoops you hit with a stick…. Ok, I never actually did that last one, it’s just something from a Norman Rockwell painting, but you get the idea.

As you might imagine, I didn’t have much to contribute to the cafeteria conversation from grades 4–7. All the other boys were talking about something called “Punch Out” with someone named “Mike Tyson,” neither of which I knew anything about. I dreaded every social gathering that was held in an arcade, because I didn’t understand how any of the machines worked and I had to spend most of my time just trying to give my tokens away. I’d go to sleepovers and someone would stick this bizarre multi-buttoned gray thing into my hands and command me to “go!” (Young boys aren’t big on verbal explanations, in case you didn’t know.) Then I’d have it taken away from me minutes later, to complaints that I “sucked.”

Granted, all this was during my shy and awkward years, which made everything 100 times worse than it had to be. Once I got more willing to be adventurous and just try stuff even if I wasn’t good at it, I was in high school and sitting on the couch cradling a controller wasn’t a big recreational activity anymore. The fact that I was never expert at — or interested in — video games was no longer a constant source of shame.

From then on, it was only an inconstant source of shame. Every once in a while, gaming still works its way into my peers’ lives…and therefore into my life.

During Steph and I’s first year of dating, for example, we went to visit her family in New Bern and we found ourselves banished to her little brother’s room while her mom met with some clients in their downstairs. James had a TV and the NES Steph had grown up with in his room and, to my slight consternation, Steph turned it on and started rifling through games to put in. There were no other viable entertainment options in the eight-year-old’s room (“Sure you don’t want to play with these GI Joe guys instead, Steph?”), so I bit the bullet and took the multi-buttoned gray thing.

I can remember the look of bewilderment on my wife’s face as I sent Mario barrelling straight into the second or third anthropomorphic mushroom in line, killing him instantly, and cursing in frustration every time. After about fifteen minutes of watching me struggle, I heard her mutter “Wow. I thought all boys were supposed to be good at video games.”

All boys are supposed to be good at video games, my dear. No one knows that better than me.

Soon after this, I made a serious attempt to improve my gaming skills. Figuring I should start at square one, I got ahold of a program that replicated all of the old school Nintendo games on a Mac laptop (and was therefore hugely popular with the future graphic designers at school). “When you sit down and play Metroid it’s just like back in the day!” my friend Joey told me, as he burned it onto a disc for me. I tried to laugh knowingly, the grade-school-cafeteria-feeling creeping back into my consciousness.

Steph relishes recounting the semester that I spent every spare minute in my dorm room, on my Powerbook, trying to beat the first Super Mario Brothers, and, honestly, hating every minute of it. Whatever part of the brain that ingests and processes the concepts of video games — from making the most basic movements, to the arching narrative that is supposed to be guiding you through levels — just never developed for me. I never even came close to beating that damn Mario Brothers.

So as far as games I actually enjoy go, the list is a short one:

  • Gran Turismo: Also, a few of the others where you just race cars around, and you don’t have to shoot guns that are mounted on the cars or get out and collect gambling debts and kill hookers.
  • Tekken: When you checked into a male dorm in 1998, you were issued a copy of either GoldenEye or Tekken 3 (along with a Bob Marley blacklight poster and emptied bottles of Jagermeister and AfterShock to use as decoration). I was in a Tekken room, which was ideal for me, because all you had to do was mash your thumbs around randomly and you could make your guy do some pretty sweet moves…. What a game.
  • Tetris: It’s Tetris.

Now I can add Guitar Hero to the list. Even though people who’ve had more exposure to video games will probably always do a little better at it, those of us who know music can hang in there, too.

I have to say, I feel almost vindicated.

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September 17th, 2007

Closing Up ’Shop

Ok, after this I promise I’ll go back to writing about other stuff, but Jerry has just posted a video of the barbershop wedding performance on YouTube, and I have to share it with you.

Highlights include:

  • Seth smiling and smirking his way through the whole affair, as he does with many things in life.
  • Mrs. Updyke looking like the happiest bride in the world.
  • Mr. Updyke, with beer in one hand and woman in the other, looking like a seasoned barbershop professional having a little fun.
  • Me mostly sort of looking like I am in pain, which I was not. I was having the time of my life, but I was also trying to concentrate and not mess up.
  • -02:57: Jerry assuring Seth he was playing the right note on his pitch pipe. Seth never grew to fully trust that pitch pipe. He always thought it was playing him the wrong starting note.
  • -02:52: Me not sticking my opening note. If you’re going to be solid on any note, it should be that opener. And I swear I always hit it in our practices. Oh well. Everyone else stays right on key and I recover ok.
  • -02:05: Jerry holding up his ring finger when we sing “Place a wedding band upon your hand.” This is the extent of what we could come up with, choreography-wise.
  • -01:49: The crowd interpreting a pause as the end of the song and going wild.
  • -01:02: Mr. Updyke leaning in to the mic and really emphasizing the crazy low note he hits here. People being greatly amused by this.
  • -00:54: That’s right. Key change.
  • -00:18: Seth taking us out with a cool-looking, commanding “bam!” hand motion that was actually a signal for “I’ve been holding this note for a long time and I am now out of breath.”
  • -00:15: Seth, Andrea, and I coming in for some love and Papa Updyke shoving us away. He later explained to me that he was trying to get us to spread out and take a bow, but then came to the realization that it was too much to orchestrate.
  • -00:09: The four of us celebrating the culmination of several months of work, and our shared musical bond, by warmly embracing each other.
  • -00:04: Me getting a face-full of Updyke’s boutonniere, because he is so freaking tall.


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