1.04.2016

Insert Coin

There is no winning in pinball. Only prolonged losing. Every pinball game ever played has ended with the same unceremonious GAME OVER. No one pulls that sword from the stone. But for some inexplicable reason, we feel compelled to insert our quarters, crack our knuckles, and see if we've got what it takes to be king of a tiny castle.

A pinball victory is as nebulous as it is satisfying. Whether you're chasing a personal best, the high of knocking off a Grand Champion, or trying to edge out a Player 2, the pinball machine is indifferent. The flashing lights and chaotic art call to us like an amusement lighthouse. Press start, it begs. But make no mistake, you do not matter to pinball. The cynical among you might suggest pinball is rigged like a self-contained carnival, but there is no anthropomorphism here. Every ball plunged is met with solenoid indifference. This maddening intersection of human desire and the indifference of the world is what Camus famously coined "the absurd." 

In the distance, someone is shouting "Replay! The point of pinball is replays." On the face, the score-based award of a free game makes sense, but as we dig deeper into the psychology of pinball enthusiasts, a thesis couched in replays disappears faster than a ball save. Survival, as Nietzsche famously noted, is not the goal of life, but rather a side effect. Suggesting the goal of pinball is to play more pinball sounds poetic, but misses something essential about the experience.

The game could easily make an additional credit available to the player once play has ended, but that's not the point of a replay. A replay is an audible, some would say ostentatious, declaration of achievement. It's not an accident. Hell, it's an entire mechanical apparatus built to hammer the side of the cabinet. This same mechanism is engaged when a player places on the leaderboard. The "knocker" sound is a Darwinian flare aurally fired from the machine to signal everyone in within a hundred feet that the player standing in the corner is a champion to be anointed with oils and bathed in adoration. Sadly, however, most bar patrons seem to have largely missed this memo.

Still, the replay is crucial to the pinball experience. I detest free play machines, like playing poker with Monopoly money. Life demands stakes. A fiscally insignificant investment of twenty-five cents represents a substantial emotional gamble. With this quarter, I pledge to pit my timing, patience, and savvy against gravity, chaos, and my inevitable demise. No one leaves this poker room with chips. The replay, however, invites us to play another hand. As with any good con, there's a catch. The replay award becomes exponentially harder to achieve. The score needed for a replay nearly doubles each time it is awarded  making it theoretically possible to achieve, but quickly becomes unwieldy, a cruel inversion of Zeno's paradox of motion (see: Achilles and the Tortoise).    

Still, the game cannot be beat. Sir Isaac Newton curses his own name every time he gets half-ramped. What goes up must come down. The two inch canyon separating your flipper feels like a mother's desperate hands trying to catch an infant that slipped off the kitchen counter. Every outlane is a coin flip. No appeal can be made to the dispassionate, severe, and final rule of the tilt bob. 

So why do we play a game we know to be unwinnable? Why are there golden tokens in every room of my house? Why are there more pictures of pinball DMDs on my Instagram account than people? Because pinball is a microcosm for existence. You find yourself at a table. It could be an immaculately maintained, lovingly tuned gem, or it could be laundromat trash beaten within an inch of its life by kids lamenting its monochrome screen. You can play like a hero on the garbage machine or you can choke on the pristine one. There is always wiggle room. And everything good in life lives in this wiggle room. Amidst the chaos and the myriad of uncontrollable variables, your choices matter. You have agency. Every flip counts. And when you're staring at a flashing question mark mansion room in Adam's Family with your ball cradled, you discover what you're made of.

And while nothing lasts forever, our twenty-five cents buys us a temporary reprieve from this certainty. For the briefest of moments we forget about the inevitability of defeat. When our live catches are effortless, our nudges second nature, and every lit shot our destiny, pinball implores us to believe that, for these three balls, absurdity can be conquered. Our quarter buys the fleeting fantasy of immortal life and the chance to spit in the face of gravity. 

Not a bad deal at all.      

1.03.2016

A Poem About Weeds

We are obsessed with flowers, bleeding inkwells dry grasping for the perfect female metaphor. Molesting canvas with amateur hotel art, rummaging through gas station Mother's Day bouquets, and think nothing of the February rose genocide. We can't get enough. While the Camus-lover in me admires the irony of taking something beautiful, killing it, and admiring its fleeting, ephemeral beauty, I can't help but think our values are misplaced.

What is a flower? What makes us imbue it with value? It's delicate, soft, and aesthetically pleasing.  Surely these are laudable traits. But consider for a moment, their corollary: the pesky weed. The scourge of weekend chores, the blight of gardens, and the Rosemary of the Kennedy dynasty. Their namesake is rejection. They are to be discarded and weeded out. Yet the weed persists. Without encouragement, love, or support, the weed thrives. It grows taller and stronger than it has any right to. It refuses to be stifled by concrete or human desires, exploiting the tiniest cracks and carving out space for itself. It grows during droughts, sneers at pesticide, and is too resourceful to yield. In an inhospitable world, the weed declares itself worthy of existence.

Yet this unlikely survivor has no place in our hearts. Why? Because it is not beautiful. No date dreams of having one plucked and presented on a doorstep. No mother wants it on the dinner table. Consider, for a moment, what the flower represents. It is youth and beauty. Every woman who's been compared to a rose by a hack with a ponytail and an acoustic guitar is subtly accosted by the notion her value is commensurate with the flower. A fragile, beautiful object to throw away when her leaves turn.

What if we reimagined our values?  What if, instead of giving your partner a rose, you yanked a weed from the parking lot? What if you stood for something other than beauty? Declared that growing from abject, brutal conditions was worthy of your poetry and the basis for your sonnets? Proclaimed that defiance, unruliness, and grit are sexy?

It is a mistake to declare all things beautiful. If everything is beautiful, nothing is beautiful. The real crime is boiling down all value to beauty. Leave beauty for the motel art and the Hallmark cards. The weed has no use for it. Its ragged leaves bear the fruit of persistence, its gnarled stem is steady, and when the big storm comes, it howls at the wind to bring it on.

These values make it righteous and help it earn its place squarely at the center of our dining tables, and pinned to our breast, reminds us of the other values we ought to strive for. Beauty is but one of many magnificent values.

6.22.2015

Whys and Hows

"He who has his why can endure any how." - Nietzsche

Part I - Why

I am a heavy sleeper. No, that's not quite right. You don't fully understand my meaning. I don't wake up. You could flick a match onto a bulldozer loaded with fireworks and I'd barely turn over. It's not just that I sleep heavy. I wake up heavy. My body likes eight straight. It's a burden for all parties involved. Anyone who's tried to wake me up is owed my deepest apologies and sympathy.

I've tried everything: Putting the alarm on the other side of the room. Setting one alarm. Setting multiple alarms. Trusting my body to wake up on its own. It's all a mess.

The snooze bar is my proof against god. If God gave us free will, he'd release me from my eternal struggle. The goddamn, tempting, beautiful, heartbreaking snooze bar. Only divorcees have these kinds of ambivalent relationships. I pound that little fucker like it owes me lunch money. Five times a morning. Until my morning is a disaster. Until I'm blowing through stale yellow lights and sprinting to the time clock. That button is my nightmare.

For most of my life, I've promised myself to just wake up when my alarm goes off. It's not hard. Rationally, I know it's the only option. I don't take seriously the notion that I might actually retreat to my bed for the better part of the day. I'm too much of a coward to call in sick for work. So in reality, I'm just telling Nick-from-an-hour-from-now to fuck off. But despite my numerous attempts, I'm still a slave to those nine minute increments of bliss.

In my more existential moments, I've urged myself to convert more second order desires into primary ones. Convincing myself I, by sheer force of will, can change myself. Seemed simple and banal enough. Hear an alarm. Get up.

But for nearly thirty years, I remained slave to silence. Nothing made me happier than the nine minute chunks of sleep I'd steal back from my alarm. Consequences are a bitch. I was perpetually rushing during my needlessly chaotic mornings. Every day was an emergency. 

I was defeated. The champion of free will had conceded. It can't be done. Or at least not by me. The wisdom of my logic was shouted down by Egyptian cotton and feather pillows.

Part II - How

When I moved to Chicago, I didn't know a single person for a thousand miles. I liked to read outside because I sincerely believed the kind of woman I wanted to meet would see I was reading X and be so impressed that I absorbed X, she would have to go on a date with me. This has happened a grand total of zero times.

Two things happened as a result: i) I read a shit ton of books and ii) to justify taking up space on their patio, I starting buying a coffee as payment for the seat. I may have neglected to mention that until such time, I had consumed a grand total of zero coffee drinks.  Most days I'd bike to my neighborhood coffee shop, some little outfit called Intelligentsia or some such and buy a coffee beverage. By the end of the summer, I found myself at a Starbucks before an audition paying rent for my seat. I ordered a latte and began reading.

I nearly spit the coffee out.

I tactfully informed the barista there was some sort of error with my drink. It tasted off. To their credit, they politely and promptly remade my drink. The damnedest thing happened: it tasted exactly the same. There wasn't an error.   This is what their coffee tasted like. What had I been drinking?!

It turns out I had been drinking some of the best coffee in Chicago, putting it high in the running for best coffee in the world. Unwittingly, I had become a coffee snob. As winter approached, my patio visits became more infrequent. I invested in a personal coffee pot, a Bunn Velocity Brew. It keeps the water at temp at all times, like a fire fighter poised on my counter ready to jump at a moment's notice. Over the next few months, I found myself popping out of bed earlier and earlier, sometimes without the aid of an alarm.

Soon, most mornings were spent with a mug in my hand. Now it is a rare goddamn occasion I leave my house without it. Coffee is a morning cliche, but this was different. I didn't care about the caffeine. My work has free coffee. I could give a shit about that Keurig volcanic ash cum. I woke up early because the experience of drinking good coffee and reading news was better than sleep.

I realized you can't change. Humans don't change. At least not on a whim. You can't just decide to eat healthy, work out, get up early, or focus on your art. The reason why we don't is because we don't value it, or we value it less than cheeseburgers, Netflix, sleeping in and jerking off to Internet porn. We may feel a social pressure to appreciate the world in this way, but the true hierarchy of our values is revealed in our actions. We are what we do. These tertiary and secondary value judgments suggest we might think we ought to wake up early and stop hitting the snooze, but until a value trumps the marginal joy of stealing nine minutes of your morning back from work, your ass ain't getting out of bed.

school < sleep
work < sleep
bullshit personal existentialist pissing contest with self < sleep

coffee and noodling sleep 

In the end, it is very simple. Wanton freedom of choice doesn't exist. Only a competing value can compel us to action. For me, it was drinking that freshly brewed serious gourmet shit. It's gnarly and aggressive. It's bold, black, and consumed unadulterated. Coffee is what happens when you have rough sex with tea. It's what my heroes called Black Blood. And I love it enough to stop hitting the snooze bar, get my ass out of bed, and start my motherfucking day.




Visit @muglife4life on IG and Mug Life if you want to see me get nerdy.

4.06.2015

Minor Pursuits

I nearly doubled this score today.
Hobby is an odd word. My ears are disgusted by it. The word itself is ugly. The sound. The construction. The very aesthetic of the written word is revolting. It stinks of frivolity, like it ought to be relegated to the infirm and decrepit. Rarely does a single word castrate an activity so thoroughly. Hobbies are for nine or ninety year olds. But behind this atrocious mask lies perhaps a series of tiny personal treasures. Such an ugly word to describe something immeasurably beautiful.

Simply put, a hobby is a minor pursuit sought for its own sake. It contains no extrinsic value, social currency, or demonstrable value. Yet, each of us, when we settle into our little homes for the evening reach for any number of beautifully insignificant activities. These loves bathe in the noblest intentions, hovering angelically above the base engagements of ordinary life. 

Perhaps my purest hobby is pinball. I've been actively playing since I was fifteen, though my Dad taught me to play years before. I remember thinking he was a god because he could catch and manipulate the ball at will. It blew my little fucking mind. I would end up spending incalculable hours trying to tame the little silver devil. 

My first job was as a midway (i.e. carnival) operator at Circus Circus in Reno, Nevada. I swindled good people for $5 an hour for over a year. Every father or boyfriend sure the love of their child or girlfriend could be bartered for an oversized stuffed animal. Breaks were much needed spent dipping into the arcade to pop a pair of quarters into a table. My Dad's techniques began paying dividends almost immediately. I could control the seemingly random, chaotic game. I was hooked. 

During the summer, I'd spend my days in an arcade. My mom worked in a casino, and would send me to the game room with a handful of quarters and say, "Make it last." Pinball, theoretically, is infinite. But I prefer to think of it as a microcosm of life. Every game ends. What matters is how you played. Did you stave off the inevitable beautifully using deft skills and harmonious play? Or did you rail against the machine for handing you a few shitty center drains? Of course I didn't wax philosophical about it when I was 15, I just liked it. 

I wasn't an asshole back then. 

Maybe I was. 

Yeah, I was probably an asshole. But not about this.

Fast forward 15 years and I'm still playing. Maybe more than ever. And I've gotten pretty good. Considering I've easily put in the Gladwellian 10,000 hours, I fucking ought to be. I could have become a doctor with the time I spent playing pinball. But I didn't. I spent nights with my back to thousands of potential friends and dates, staring at a little silver ball for no other reason than pure joy. As though we needed to justify anything beyond unadulterated joy

We're tempted to disparage people's hobbies, dismiss them as superfluous and wasteful. But when someone becomes enamored with a minor pursuit, even temporarily, we ought to stand back and smile. They've found something that satisfies them for no earthly reason. Out of the chaos and absurdity of existence, they've found something shiny to play with. We ought to hold them on our shoulders until our backs give out. I have dozens of minor pursuits: iPhone tinkering, home brewing coffee, collecting records, disc golf, playing guitar, writing this blog, writing four other blogs. They oscillate and jockey for my attention, but rarely are they left behind. If I loved it once, I will love it again. I'm in the spring of my pinball renaissance, and I feel some sonnets coming on. If you're in Chicago, keep your eyes out for my initials or those of my pinball team: Extra Ballsy (EXB). If you come across them, know that where you stand, I sipped a Diet Coke and wished to be nowhere else in the world at that moment.   

-NED

* You can check out recent scores on IG/Twitter: @extraballsy (EXB)

3.12.2015

Part of the Time

I used to think everyone who worked full-time, was married, and had kids gave up on their dreams. Believed firmly that the borders of fun were defended by an invisible fence that kept the pesky dog of adulthood at bay. Was sure I'd never trade my free time for financial stability. But now the nebulous shadows of my dreams loom long over my bleeding savings account.

It wasn't that long ago I was certain I'd be playing my bass and staying up until 3AM every night with my childhood friends. Now they all live on opposite sides of the country. As the years drone on, like Christmas ornaments in January, they're packed and won't be seen again until next year. Our endless summers and ocean of days off dwindle to a thin puddle.

Suddenly you're eating lunch alone at Chipotle, lamenting not having anyone to split your guac with. For the first time, there are too many hours in the day. What once was a schedule overflowing with possibility, is now barren.

Adulthood poaches the rare and priceless animals from your life. It buries your equilibrium. I believe in free time. And spending massive amounts of it with the people I love, doing the things I love. But that isn't enough. You need two to play tennis. And while I am infinitely grateful for the time I've spent with my friends, my father warned me this day would come. Thanks to him I drank long and hard from the keg of friendship, danced with lady revelry, and prolonged the inevitable for longer than most. But I can feel my foothold starting to give. Doubt. It may well be time to secure a future and build something of my own. At least it will keep my hands busy. 


10.21.2014

Letters Home Tour Blog #1

At the moment I'm in Iola, KS. We did our first show this morning at the Bowlus Event center for a group of youths.


Let me back up. 

For the next month or so, I'll be acting in a touring production of The Griffin Theatre Company's Letters Home, a play about the human experience of soldiers in the wars of Iraq and Afganistan. We had our first show this morning.

I'll be writing via my phone so please excuse the brevity and careless mistakes. The cast is wonderful and really brought this show to life. The emotional weight of the real stories of the men and women of the armed forces affected me much more than I thought it would. 

I am reading the letters of Leonard Cowherd. The family of this serviceman had seen the previous iterations of the show and gifted Leonard's uniform to the company. The director, Bill Massolia, brought out the uniform before our performance. Touching that uniform was an immensely emotional moment. It was humbling. 

We have some off time before our second show of the day. We explored the town square and I, as I am wont to do, found the nearest coffee place. They do pour overs. I was happy.

Afterwards, we visited the second-hand stores. I found a vintage Old Spice shaving mug that I'm sure will get its own MugLife.com write-up soon. 
After peaking into the exercise room (using the broadest possible interpretation of the word), me and some of the guys did some recon and found a nearby gym that sold us day passes. Today I learned that Pete is stronger than I am and that people in Iola don't lock up their belongings. They just leave them on the counter. It blew our paranoid minds. They said nothing had ever been stolen. Having had the watch my father gave me after getting my Master's degree stolen at a gym, I was skeptical. I kept my phone and wallet in my shorts.

My Dad served in the military. He was in Korea and I only now have started to ask about his experiences. Makes me wish I would have done so earlier. I wonder how much of his interesting life I have missed because I was too dumb to ask and he was too classy to it bring up on his own.

I am grateful and excited and haven't fucked up the show yet. This month I will pay my bills acting. And that is something that will make my Dad proud. He always said, "Do what you love and figure out how to get paid for it later." 

Dad, I did.

8.30.2014

Heavy Keys

For a long time I was living a lonely Eskimo life in a tiny studio apartment, pounding my keyboard like the gavel of a tribunal on life itself. Solitude suited me well. I didn't need much space. I never ate at home. I made coffee, had my records, and made love to my Netflix wife every night. And in many ways it suited me. Most ways.

I liked never coming home or having to call, staying up to 3AM drinking milkshakes and playing Halo at my buddy's house. But it wasn't just my rogue cowboy lifestyle, I loved little things like the austerity of my keychain: bike, car, home. That's it.

My life was simple. Routine. If you asked what I was doing you got one of the following texts: coffee, gym, reading, writing, or masturbating. Different orders depending on the day.

Then I went and met a girl. Less Netflix. Less writing. Less reading. Less gym. Less masturbation. More or less same coffee. Suddenly my tiny fortress of solitude had company. Someone looked for place to put their dinner, overlooking the obvious queen bed/table. Sometimes she'd stay over. Sometimes I'd stay over. Suddenly my Chrome bag became an overnight bag. Clean underwear took the place of The Iliad.

Eventually, we did the key thing. She gave me hers well before I gave her mine, which I'm sure says something negative about me. And all of the sudden my carefully crafted ecosystem was thrown into chaos. Her key looked like mine; mine looked like hers. My carabiner really wasn't set up to accommodate other keys. I could feel the bulk accruing in my back pocket. It threw off my post-midnight key maneuvers causing me to resemble a common drunkard. It slightly altered how I sat and jangled annoyingly.

Suddenly I hated my keys, a distain I was altogether unprepared for.  They had an unbecoming girth. They hung ugly. Heavy. Inelegant. What's next? A goddamn grocery club card? A spectre loomed. It portended the end of Spartan simplicity. The dawn of not simply choosing, but of owning curtains on the horizon. I became restless, like a dog realizing the car ride wasn't to the park.

But that's how it went for a while. I'd stay at her house; she'd stay at mine. Slowly the ratio tipped more and more to her house. What woman wouldn't want to stay in an apartment with three coffee makers and only two spices: pepper and cayenne pepper (in case you were curious)? After a while I began to think of my apartment as an exorbitantly priced, air-conditioned storage unit. I visited to pick up clothes and to seek refuge during fights. That was about it.

It is at this point, many months later, I did something rather out of character: I moved in with her. Let my lease lapse and moved in. I gave away most of what wasn't already at her house and waved goodbye to my two-spice life. And I was goddamn apprehensive. For most of my life, I have spewed the mantra, "If I break up with my girlfriend, I don't want to move." And seventeen year old me wasn't wrong. But he wasn't happy either.

Then it happened. Walking out of my overpriced storage shed, I left my key on the kitchen counter leaving behind my glorified hotel room. As I hooked my keys to my jeans for the first time as a domestic partner. A familiar feeling graced my Levi's: bike, car, home. Closing the door behind me for the last time, a smile crept across my face.

An elegant and fulfilling life takes many forms, but never without commitment. Making choices is more important than their outcome. The point is to choose, to chase a life. With one foot out the door, we dog paddle in the middle of an ocean. It occupies our time and little else. Satisfaction is found at the poles: alone or partnered. Yes or no. Despair and cumbersome keys lie in between.    

3.27.2014

Brick #518



I have written over five hundred posts for this blog which I started the month I moved from Reno to Chicago. Alone in a half-dozen tiny apartments, I have toiled many late nights. Including this one. It's just past 2AM and everyone I care about is asleep. Alone with my keyboard. This blog kept me company when I was single and had no friends, was neglected during my relationships, and has been one of the only constants in my life over the last half decade. When I started it, I didn't have a goal in mind. I couldn't tell you why I made it. But it has become oddly important to me and only now am I starting to understand its purpose for me.

I moved here to study at iO, an improvisation theatre. Surrounded by fresh-faced hopefuls begging for stage time, we all mis-took classes for auditions, played it safe, hid in the face of fear, and did shitty improv. It's been five years since my first class. I've become more interested in film, theatre, and writing (read: wasn't very good at improv) but many of my friends still chase the beautiful spontaneous dragon. They're grinding away at small clubs and theaters across the city, auditioning for the Second City Conservatory, and still flooding my Facebook events tab. Most of us weren't any good. It is a sad thing that adults need classes in how to play with each other, but maybe even sadder that most people don't take them. We did crappy improv for a while and most everyone moved on.

Then something strange happened.

The ones who stuck around got good. Like shockingly good. Now I watch their shows in awe. They command the stage, play strong, and genuinely make me laugh. It's easy to suggest they were the gifted ones, and the cream naturally rose to the top over time. This is bullshit. I was there watching them from day 1. They weren't good then. They are good now.

In Outliers, Malcom Gladwell posits on a theory of greatness: it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. For perspective, that's five years at a full-time job. How many things, in earnest, can you say you've put that much time into? And while it always seemed right to me, I never grasped it fully. It's easy to agree intellectually, but to believe it in your gut is something different altogether. I believe it now. And it is pretty fucking beautiful.

It occurs to me I've been approaching my projects wrong. I've been banging my head against my keyboard to make them great, hating myself when they aren't. When my blogs fall flat, my sketches don't land, or my play feels like it is an armchair philosophy pamphlet, I'm tempted to quit. Maybe their job isn't to be good. Maybe they're bricks, and every project is practice. Nothing more. An hour here. A couple hours there. If you obsess about every brick, you might never build the house. And isn't the house the whole fucking point?

Sadly, greatness isn't a chisel. It doesn't eliminate your imperfections in sweeping chunks to reveal the beautiful statue underneath. It is the slow, laborious erosion of your flaws. You are a shitty little rock on a beach. If you want smooth edges you're going to have to let the waves of time crash down on your head. Day and night. Over and over. For a very long time. Progress is imperceptible. It is a nearly unbearable process.

But the next time you're on a beach, I dare you to look for a rock that isn't smooth. You won't find one. Time wins every time. When you're done, let's build a beach house together.

1.06.2014

§116

Man is the only creature who knows what the clouds look like from above.

§115

Timidity is uglier than arrogance.

§114

Art fills many voids, but never the one on the cold side of the bed.

§113

If it's God or bust, I'll take bust.

§112

Stop searching for your calling. Every phone is ringing. Answer one.

§111

Anxiety is our generation's polio.

§110

Compromise is a couple's euphemism for unhappiness.

§109

Don't mistake procrastination for spontaneity.

§108

I am thankful for loneliness. Without it I might never write, read, or learn anything worthwhile about myself.

§107

An artist's value is neither given nor taken by her critics.

§108

You can't write yourself out of dark places; you have limp through it.

§107

Relaxation is a euphemism for laziness.

§106

"Good enough" is the gravestone of greatness.

§105

Be a juggernaut of positivity.

§104

Fuck makeup. Books are sexy.

§103

The problem with selfishness is it feels so fucking good.