Friday, June 20, 2014

Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Love & Relationships I Learned from '80s Music

After witnessing a powerful, fun, and hyperactive performance by Five Iron Frenzy in St. Louis, Missouri recently, I had a realization -- the band didn't have many love songs. Only one, "Ugly Day", comes to mind, unless you count any of the songs from their Cheeses of Nazareth album (which I don't). Which is kind of odd when you consider that love songs seem to be the one common bond among all genres of music that nearly any fan, no matter how dedicated to their favored genre, can get behind.

As a child of the 1980s, there's nothing I like more than finding others who grew up enjoying the same mixture of pop, rock, punk, new wave, rap, and metal that I did.  It's an instant camaraderie, an attraction to like-minded individuals who lived through the same era, even if in different locales.  We saw the emergence of MTV, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the insanely fun movies that graced their presence upon that decade.

But what seems to be ubiquitous about the music of the 1980s is the parade of love songs, sappy and schmaltzy, schlocks and classics, that permeated the airwaves, the televisions, and the theater screens throughout that time.  My wife and I were recently talking about what made a great 1980s song so endearing, so passionate, and so memorable.

In a way, everything was new, so a lot of musicians were putting their hearts on the sleeves in the form of iron-on patches, others in the form of branding with a hot iron, and still others just kind of waved a heart-shaped bandana around for a while before throwing it in the trash. The music of the 1980s succeeded due to a combination of a revolution in musical styles and an exploration of subject matter.  With that in mind, we set out to come up with this handy guide to love and relationships, as told to by the music of the '80s.

Strap in.

"Love Is a Battlefield" - Pat Benetar
"That's not true," my mother said.
"What?" we replied, as the music video of girls dancefighting pimps played on the television screen.
"Love is NOT a battlefield."
I have to disagree. Even Jordin Sparks made her own declaration about love sometimes taking on the guise of combat in 2009.

"Love Stinks" - J. Geils Band
Sometimes you just have to listen to your gut. When your gut has been punched one too many times by a sour relationship, this is what happens.

"White Wedding" or "Rebel Yell" - Billy Idol
I put these two together because as a DJ, I've found nothing ruins a wedding reception quite like a Billy Idol song. Honestly, when I'm taking requests and asking what songs people want to dance to, if they give me a Billy Idol song, I politely intone that I'm looking for song that will bring people TO the dance floor, not drive them AWAY from the dance floor. "White Wedding" is NOT a wedding song, but a song about a shotgun wedding. Two different things. And "Rebel Yell" has more to do with the wedding night than the party beforehand. So, yeah.

"Hello" - Lionel Richie
The impact of this song, I think, has more to do with the music video than the song itself. In it, Richie becomes infatuated with a blind college student, and while it does have a kind of stalker vibe by today's standards, it's pretty tame for back in the '80s. Of course, "Is it me you're looking for" kind of loses its punch when he's talking to a blind woman. Then again, that fact also causes the lines "'Cause I wonder where you are, and I wonder what you do" to take on more humor than I think was intended.

If This Is It - Huey Lewis and the News
I'll admit it -- I LOVE the music of Huey Lewis and the News, but I didn't like this song when it first came out. Man, was I ignorant. This is a classic example of timeless songwriting, in that it's been better remembered than "The Heart of Rock and Roll", "I Want a New Drug", or "Heart and Soul", all of which were great songs in and of themselves. Honesty in a relationship -- that's all I want. If there's nothing more to what we have together than what we've already shared, just say so and I'll split. Donesville.

You Spin Me Round (Like A Record) - Dead Or Alive
I don't know exactly what it means to spin someone right round, baby, right round, but I think the idea is that you make him crazy with desire. If only you were as androgynous and eye-patchy as he was, it would be a match made on vinyl. Two great things to note about this song: 1.) it inspired tons of people turning in circles on the dance floor, and 2.) it's in D minor, which is the saddest of all keys.

I Want to Know What Love Is - Foreigner
Talk about being needy. "It's gonna take a little time, a little time to think things over." Whatever, dude. Just get back on the horse.

Careless Whisper - Wham!
That saxophone. That gloriously sexy, sultry saxophone. Such a sad song to teach a young boy on the cusp of manhood about infidelity. Guilty feet have got no rhythm.

What's Love Got to Do With It - Tina Turner
You know, I'm not sure exactly what this song was meant to portray -- that love is too risky to fall into, or that a relationship has no room for love. Either way, this song was infectious and ubiquitous, and it put the question on the tongues of everyone that heard it.

Always On My Mind - Willie Nelson & Pet Shop Boys
Even though this was an Elvis Presley song, both Nelson and the Pet Shop Boys released their own versions of this tune in the 1980s, and we were all better for it.

Keep On Loving You - REO Speedwagon
I don't want to sleep. A song about forgiveness in the face of one's relational past. While I don't hold REO Speedwagon up as a standard by any stretch of the imagination, a romantic power ballad like this is something every young woman wanted sung about her.

867-5309/Jenny - Tommy Tutone
Creepy goes catchy. We all saw the scribblings on bathroom stalls -- "For a good time, call..." but we had the good sense NOT to call the number, because we knew that whoever would be at the other end of the line would NOT be someone named Jenny.

Another Day in Paradise - Phil Collins
At the tail end of the '80s, Phil gave us a reason to look beyond ourselves. Homeless populations everywhere needed more than just a song to help them out, but I'm sure this song did compel some to think about those much less fortunate than ourselves.

You Give Love a Bad Name or Living On a Prayer - Bon Jovi
Take your pick. Love 'em or hate 'em, the Aqua Net spokesperson from New Jersey thundered through the airwaves with these two rockers. One a treatise on love overcoming all working class obstacles, the other a cautionary tale about a user and abuser. Both equally fun and schlocky.

Rock the Casbah - The Clash
Love of music is the theme here. During a time of war, music brought soldiers together. The jet pilots wailed.

If You Leave - OMD
It was in the movie Pretty In Pink. So... yeah, that should be enough.

Tainted Love - Soft Cell
I've heard ill-conceived covers of this song, but none of them come close to the synthesized original of disco/new wave pop. You suck, your games are tiresome, and I'm leaving.

Under Pressure - Queen + David Bowie
I quote the lines, because they have more power than my commentary: "Love's such an old-fashioned word, and loves dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night. And love dares you to change our way of thinking about ourselves."

With Or Without You - U2
I can't live with or without you? One of the most beautiful rock ballads of all time, but confusing.

How Soon is Now? - The Smiths
Songs about longing for love were just as important as those celebrating or declaring love. Morrissey and company crafted a great, disturbingly catchy piece about holding on to the hope of love when everything seems bleak. One of the few alternative tracks from the '80s that stuck all over the place.

Kiss - Prince
I just want your extra time and your kiss. Tom Jones butchered his own version of this song, which actually wasn't half bad, but nothing -- NOTHING -- beats the falsetto screams of the master of sexy funk himself.

Never Gonna Give You Up - Rick AstleyThe late eighties were a time of musical revolution. New wave was on its way out, alternative bands were becoming more and more mainstream, and club/house/hip-hop music were emerging as the dominant genres in the clubs and on the charts. Rick Astley's power pop ditty about faithfulness was not only one of a kind, but pretty fun to dance to. And occasionally, someone asks me to Rick Roll a groom at his wedding. Of course, I'm always happy to oblige.

So, chime in. What's YOUR defining love and/or relationship song from the 1980s? Leave it below in the comments.

There Is No Box.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

We're All Mad Here -- My Experience as a First Time Gamer, Part 2

Previously, I began to take a pensively reflective look at my experience at Fear The Con 7, a roleplaying game convention put on by the folks responsible for the podcast Fear The Boot.

Now, I give you my take on how the event went from game to game.

I participated in my friend Dan's "Introduction to RPGs" game, which consisted of a game called Tooth and Claw. In this game, all the players were part of a group of ferrets (officially called a business) in someone's home, and we had to complete a task that would bring balance to the force while simultaneously trying to keep the Big Ones from waking up and catching onto our plans (the game is available for purchase here). It was a wonderful start to a weekend that was sure to leave me with great memories of stories that will never be told again, because they exist in a singular time.

Also, I must warn you, I've been told that telling gaming stories is never a good idea, so you won't hear about too many of the details of the stories themselves. Sorry, but I've been told it's bad form to bore other people with said stories. So imagine, if you will, whatever you want to once you hear the premise.

Derek Knutsen of THE ESTABLiSHED FACTS ran a game that actually featured several the hosts of Fear The Boot as the characters in the game, playing themselves by day, and moonlighting as superheroes when the need arises. "What's Behind the Mask - a FtB Mystery" pitted hosts Wayne, Pat, John, Dan, Chad, and Chris against nefarious evildoers in the city. I performed my (apparently) spot-on Wayne impersonation, whose superpower was the ability to bore people by talking endlessly about nothing. When I first opened my mouth and spoke in Wayne's voice, jaws at the table dropped and I was asked how I was able to talk like Wayne so well.  In fact, the real Chad came by our table at one point, and one of the players gestured to me and said, "Chad, meet Wayne." I obliged with Wayne's sign-on, "This is Wayne."

Chad blinked. "Do it again."
"This is Wayne," I intoned again.
"Holy crap," Chad said. And my work was done.

Oh, yeah. Dan became Unicron.

One other thing... this was where I let my noob out. At one point, Derek asked me, "What class are you in?" I blanked. I knew about character classes, but only in passing, and only with something like Dungeons and Dragons. So I wasn't sure how to handle that with this game. Is superhero a class? So, I admitted, "I'm not really sure what you mean."

"I mean, what class do you have?"

I looked at my character sheet, but it wasn't helping. I had no choice -- I had to drop out of character and reveal my ignorance.
"Okay, I need some clarification, because I just played my first RPG about four hours ago, so I don't know what you mean."

Everyone at the table was visibly shocked. They had no idea I was a noob, and at that point, I realized I had nothing to worry about. Except I still didn't know what Derek was talking about. That's when he told me the NPC (non-player character) he was playing was asking my character (not me) what college classes I was taking.

So yeah. That was about as stupid as I was going to feel all weekend.

I actually left to go see Five Iron Frenzy in concert. Felt bad about bailing on the con, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see one of my favorite bands support one of the best albums they've ever released.

My first inclination was to take in the con this year, seeing as how it was my first time. But I also thought that it might be a great idea to feed into the activity by running my own game. I decided to create an Improv Workshop for gamers that utilized a lot of the games and principles I learned when I was working improv comedy professionally. It was a refreshingly fun way to break up my "soaking in" mode, and I played with 7 other people that wanted to increase their roleplaying skills. I broke out a Jason Morningstar RPG called News Hole, which was similar to Fiasco, except that the mechanics and setup of the game are much, much simpler, and takes less time to play. They had a great time with it, and it was interesting to see how each player developed their character as the game progressed.

Another Derek Knutsen homebrew game, "School's Out for Good: a High Five Adventure" provided no shortage of style, humor, and the most horribly wrong character combinations in a delirious 1970's superhero game. Imagine you're in a superhero group that lives in a swinging superhero pad, complete with a big television panel with random buttons (because science), that's also being followed 24 hours a day by a camera crew, director, and producers of a reality television show. One of the team achieves a hallucinogenic high whenever he has attention aimed on himself, another uses her sexuality to get what she wants (who also happens to be the most intelligent member of the team), a rock hard muscle man whose robotic armor is so large it has to be towed behind the superheroes' vehicle in a trailer, and a chiseled-faced alpha male with the worst propensity for sexual innuendo anyone has ever heard.

Yeah, guess which one I was.

This game was possibly the most ridiculous, fun, over-the-top piece of gaming I am liable to experience in a long time. And it's a shame, because while I'm sure the game is available for purchase (I'm trying to get that information), there's no possible way the game would ever be the same again, even if the same players were in it. But still, it was a great time, and I wouldn't have traded that time for anything.

Finally, I was able to play a game I've been dying to try since I found out about it several months ago. There were actually more people that signed up for the game than are supposed to play in it (Fiasco works best with 3, 4, or 5 players), so we split up into two groups. I ended up playing with one of the gamers that was in my Improv for Gamers workshop in Slot 4, and a husband and wife who are also involved with the same podcast that Derek Knutsen is.  The playset we used was one set in the wild west, and the town of Broken Wagon (apparently, a group of settlers wrecked and thought, "Why not here?" leaving the wagon in the middle of town) was a perfect place for greed, corruption, murder, thievery, swindlin', and all-out revenge.

I have to tell you, if you're thinking of getting into roleplaying games, do yourself a favor and buy this game right away. You can download additional playsets for free from Bully Pulpit's website at any time, and each playset has a few thousand different ways the game can be played out, so you're never going to want for variety.

Fiasco Dice.
Essentially, we crafted the story from the ground up, using dice as a mechanic to build connections between the characters, such a specific locations, a need someone may have, objects that are precious to the, and relationships between each character. From there, we created our characters' names and backstories, and we were off.

Because Fiasco is very heavily dependent on how well the players roleplay, improv comes in handy here, and I ate it up like nobody's business. One of the fun things about this game is that it's set up to end badly for all the characters -- no one really truly wins. It's tragic in that everyone makes some very great plans, and then those plans get turned in on themselves.

In the wild west, your fortunes can change in an instant.

After Slot 6 was over, several of us hung around and played a little bit more. Cards Against Humanity was brought out and a few of us decided to indulge in the depravity therein. I played with even more people behind the podcast THE ESTABLiSHED FACTS (whom I had played with already in Slot 2), and things just got wrong. Quickly.

When the facility finally had to kick us out, I came upon Chad once more. I shook his hand and thanked him and the rest of the Fear The Boot crew for throwing this convention. I had found a new hobby, and enjoyed myself immensely, and I just wanted to express my appreciation for their hard work.  He acknowledged, and we turned to go our separate ways.  A few seconds later, I heard him say, "Hey, Zach..."

I turned towards him.

"We're all going over to the Drury Inn to hang out and play some games. You should join us."

The kid in me that's always wanted to be liked, always wanted to be included, always ached for someone to point at me when picking teams and say, "We'll take HIM" did about 4 backflips and laughed giddily while I simply nodded, smiled, and said, "I'd love to."

I've always thought of myself as someone that wants to include other people in what I'm doing. I take after my mom in that way, in the sense that I'm always ready for a party. But for some reason, even though I know a lot of people and a lot of people know me, I've always felt like an outsider. I'd been rebuffed or ignored by people in social groups that I've been a part of, even when I was performing improv. Even now, my schedule doesn't afford my wife and I the opportunity to hang out with many people.

And then, someone I hadn't seen since our freshman year of college, someone with whom I've never made any significant connection, offered me an invitation. And it wasn't the kind of shrugging, well-whatever invitation that you give to someone when someone's already spilled the beans about your plans. It was a direct-hit request: "You should join us."

One thing I discovered, above all, at Fear The Con 7 was the feeling of being included. I was allowed to run my own game in my first ever gaming convention, for God's sake. I mean, if that's not an indication of a group that will let anyone in and welcome them as a part of their core, I don't know what is. I connected with people who trusted me and the others at those tables to be a part of their world, and to let them into our worlds. We built relationships, stories, and tragedies. We celebrated the camaraderie that comes with accomplishing a task or designing a structured system, we rejoiced when the pieces came into place, and rejoiced again when everything went horribly, horribly wrong.

My DJ schedule for next June is already filling up, so I don't know if I'll be able to attend again next year, at least not for the entire weekend.  But in the meantime, I'm going to organize some games, find some people to hang out with through a Meetup group, or make something happen through Google Hangouts.  I'm going to find other people to include, and we'll have ourselves a grand time building new worlds and tearing them down again.

Here I am. Rock you like a '70s superhero with a codpiece.

There Is No Box.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Welcome to the Dungeon. Nobody Wants to Kill You Here.

Well, I did it.  I geeked out completely this time. In the best possible way. Last weekend, I attended my first tabletop roleplaying game convention.

I'd never played an RPG before in my life. So why in the world did I decide to jump in with both feet and attend a gaming convention? Simply put, I was invited.

Daniel Repperger moderates Fear the Boot, a podcast about tabletop roleplaying games "and a little bit more". Known all over the United States and in parts of Europe, the podcast has created a large online community of gamers who are entertained by the topics covered in the podcast. Episode 115 is an introduction to RPGs, broken up into several small parts, that give newcomers to gaming a quick tutorial on the parts, lingo, and expectation of RPGs. One of their bits of advice is simply to give it a shot.

I met Dan in junior high school -- we were in band together, as well as a few other classes -- and he and I had very similar senses of humor, so we connected very easily.  We lost touch in high school, then reconnected several years ago, and my wife and I have had dinner with Dan and his wife Karla a few times since then.  It was at our last dinner together that he suggested I come to Fear The Con 7, a gaming convention hosted by Fear the Boot.  I thought I'd give it a shot.

Having a background in professional improv comedy, I found the idea of RPGs to be somewhat similar to doing long-form improv, which I had never done. But I had also seen an episode of Geek and Sundry's TableTop video series starring Wil Wheaton, and one of the games they covered was an RPG called Fiasco. An improv-heavy game with a simple mechanic for creating characters, motivations, and locations, Fiasco centers around characters who have high ambition but poor impulse control, and there are no winners. Everyone loses in some way,

So, I got onto the Con Planner website, registered, and found activities to join based on no information other than the game descriptions. I later found out that Five Iron Frenzy was playing their first show in St. Louis in 11 years on the Friday night of the Con (and I wasn't missing THAT), so I had to bow out of Slot 3 on Friday night. Then, after hearing several of FtB's podcasts where the art of roleplaying was discussed, I decided to run my own game in slot 4, an improv workshop for gamers. I rearranged my schedule and waited for the weekend to come.

I posted on FtB's Facebook page about what I should do to prepare, and several people had plenty of great suggestions.  So I purchased a set of gaming dice in a charcoal urban camo design with yellow printed numbers, issues #4 through 6 of Dynamite's "Voltron" comic, 2 packages of index cards, 2 sets of notepads, 2 executive-style mechanical pencils, and 2 journal-type notebooks with which to make notes during my games. I felt prepared yet still inadequate.  I didn't really know what I was in for, and even though I'd chosen to run an improv workshop based on stuff I've taught before, I still felt uneasy. Nervous. Paradoxically unprepared.

I walked in on the traditional Thursday night mixer (World Wide Wing Night) and immediately felt two things:
1. What have I gotten myself into?
2. This is so cool.

At any gaming con, as evidenced by pictures you see flying up on the internet these days, you can expect a certain percentage of physical nerdity, and conversations dripping with tales of foes being vanquished and combats that were epic in scope. But I also encountered welcoming smiles, people who weren't averse to meeting new faces, and impromptu games going up all around the room.

And facial hair.  There was a lot of facial hair.

Mikey Mason
I began to find friendly faces who were eager to find out about me and my experience, and looked forward to helping if I should get stuck or have any questions. Dan was running an Introduction to RPGs game in slot 1, which I had signed up for, and I was told I'd be in good hands with Dan as the GM (they were, of course, correct).  Mikey Mason, comedian and musician (who, coincidentally, looks like he could be my twin), played an excellent set of geek-centric songs ("You all are my people.") which whipped the crowd into a frenzy.  His set ended with a Bruce Springsteenesque version of "Let It Go", which morphed into a medley of other songs performed in the Boss' signature style.  A wonderful night had by all, and for the first time in apparently several years, there were wings left over at the end of the night.

On Friday and Saturday, I spent time learning about the Fear the Boot community of gamers, and more to the point, about gamers themselves. They are, as it turns out, just like me. Just like anyone, actually. They have a hobby that they love and are passionate about, and they relish any opportunity to gather with others who share the same passion.

So I dove in.

In the next installment, I'll go into detail about what I experienced in the games I played, the connections I made, and the things I learned about myself and the gaming community. Until then...

There Is No Box.