Will Anything Ever Be Incredibly Awesome Again?

I used to be a real hotshot pilot in another life. A brilliant master of my stratospheric domain. A truly reptilian, crazed-genius fusion of Han Solo and Kara Thrace. In this life…well, I have a paralyzing fear of flight—but vague recollections in the deepest recesses of my lizard brain seem to confirm a glorious, hot-dogging chapter of my soul’s ancient history. It’s something I cling to desperately in the current frightful times, because everything else I remember is an ugly black hole of fear. I’ve always been afraid of something or other, as far back as I can remember. It’s shameful and embarrassing to admit, but eventually one has to face up to one’s inadequacies, because let’s be honest with each other here, man—we’ve all been in a scary, dark tunnel for a long time now, and I have certain concerns about the light everyone seems to be seeing these days.

Which brings me back to these nebulous flyboy quasi-memories of mine. They’ve been increasing in frequency over the past few years, and lately have been popping into my conscious mind at weird and uncomfortable times. I degenerated into a weeping puddle on a business flight to Boston last December; I cringed when watching a recent episode of Lost in which a second plane crash rips apart the characters’ lives; I felt a compelling urge to elbow aside my stepfather-in-law as he indulged in his favorite flight simulator when my wife and I were visiting on a weekend day-trip. He was, like, doing it wrong, you know? Anyway, it’s not like I haven’t sought help, either—psychiatrists, priests, mediums, dog-whisperers, and marketing consultants have all tried to exorcise my problems—but so far, nothing’s worked, and I’m beginning to get desperate.

The reflexive love of long bombing runs remains, though. Maybe it’s the video games. See, I fell off the video game wagon ages ago when my 8-bit Nintendo died sometime in the early Nineties—I’d blown the dust off too many cartridges—and with one glorious, beer-soaked exception (the N64 was a great college pastime: 007! MarioKart! Pod Racer!), I thought the days of me and the video game had long been extinct. I never got into Doom or Halo or Warcraft, or even any of the million sports games out there—but when I miraculously acquired an emulator for my Mac, well…that was that, ladies and gentlemen. I dove back into the wonderful world of first-person shooters and extra lives and hit points and old-school Japanimation and MIDI-music earworms and—and to my great and happy surprise—none of my skills had atrophied whatsoever. I mean, I’d forget the occasional flashy up-up-down-down-B-A-B-A-select-start trick or two, but I hadn’t expected to beat Zelda I, Metroid, Double Dragon, Mega Man II, and Super Mario III in a single day.

And suddenly, life was worth living again. Everything else I’d tried to re-capture during my recent bouts of crippling nostalgia has been a hilarious failure: baseball and soccer, biking all over town, playing bass guitar, and binge drinking all have horrible consequences anymore—but I could still zap pixellated baddies as if I were thirteen again. Then it hit me—if none of my abilities had degraded, then somehow I’d never stopped using them. What had I been doing for the majority of the last decade that would warrant such amazing retention? The answer, my friends, was simple: I had treated life as a video game, and had been subconsciously encouraged to do so by the very thing we all know, love, and take for granted on a daily basis here in the tarnished twenty-first century: the Internet.

It’s true—the web is one big video game, and of course this dates back before the legendary bbs and alt.geek.whatever days—but I jumped on this particular ferris wheel in the heady days of the dot-com boom, when everyone and their dog was making websites and joining forums and building communities and blogging, blogging, blogging their lives away. I told myself I did it for the band—we needed a website and I was the only one who cared enough to try and design one—but in reality I’m sure I did it as a springboard to larger-community-acclimation and assimilation. It was only a matter of time before the Scoop and Soapblox platforms arrived, and with them, the ultimate video game to suck me in. The fact that it was transparently disguised as a liberal political (soon to be) mega-blog mattered not; indeed, that was the most hilarious part of the whole joke. Once a master game developer got his hands on it, the thing exploded into the goriest, nastiest shoot-em-up I’d ever seen.

And let me tell you, it was every geek for himself, man. You learned the ropes quick or you died a grisly death. It was a weird mix of unbelievably callous, snide sarcasm and hilariously melodramatic emoting, and no one was safe from anyone else. The moderator freaked—he was losing money, and the pain was terrible—so there had to be some rules imposed. That’s where I came in. I was recruited (or press-ganged, or impressed) into a new elite corps of search-and-destroyers out for blood. We did horrible things, but we kept the Shire and its hobbits safe from all manner of unpatriotic trolls, so our nominal superiors looked the other way and let us do our thing. We were the best of the best, the glorious fighter pilots every woman wanted and every man wanted to be (until we started recruiting chicks too, so…that equation changed a bit), but as with all things, it was not to last.

No, one or two or nine or twelve of us—I won’t say who, so as to shield the patriotic guilty—gradually lost the plot, and begin hunting for the hunt alone. Not exactly going rogue, but not really going by the book either. Some bad guys were caught and punished, but…other ugly things happened too. Some villages had to be razed to be saved. Some detainees had to be violated in unholy ways. Some innocent bystanders ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time, and—well, let’s just say it wasn’t pretty and leave it at that. It’ll all come out in toto one day, and when it does, all the flyboy nostalgia in the world won’t make up for the other awful things I remember. The flashbacks are debilitating, man. Some guys have felt suicidal, but thankfully I’m not one of them. No, I have too much to live for—not least of which is protecting my sacred reputation.

But even that becomes difficult under threat of special prosecution. Even simple mental self-preservation becomes an epic endeavor when you’ve been treating life like a video game. Jesus, will anything ever truly be incredibly awesome again? I mean, adolescent fantasies and academic what-ifs don’t really have much of a half-life. I’ve had a few days off now to ponder the universe, and quite a few not-insignificant truths have stomped their way into my little corner of the cosmos, because although I am by nature a curious lad, upon reflection the myriad interests and obsessions of my current corporeal incarnation all seem to have a common thread.

I’ve forgotten most of them, though, because the most important one inadvertently negated all competition. Steve Krug said it best (though not first) when, wittingly or otherwise, he condemned everyone in my profession to the Dark Dungeon of Dumb: “Don’t Make Me Think.” Totally, dude. I had difficulty accepting it at first—I am, after all, a Gifted and Talented child—but since the overwhelmingly fantabulous versatility of this theory can be applied to oh so many things out there in that wide world of ours, I gave in once again to sloth and apathy, and am a better person for it.

And yet the flying-and-falling nightmares don’t stop. They’ll probably never, ever stop—and really, isn’t that penance enough? Mock the dinosaurs all you want, you ungrateful little hippies—we kept your asses safe from the Reds and the ragheads and you’ll never know what else. Phalanxes of protesting straw-men armed with deadly false equivalencies don’t frighten us. Things would be so much easier if all those people just kept quiet and let us live out our remaining lives in peace. Is that so tough? So difficult? I don’t think so, dude.