Sunday, February 21, 2010

Soundpolitic Sundays: Silly Political Games Edition

There is a word out there that I can use to unequivocally and quite comfortably describe myself. It stems from my longtime hobbies: Ever since I was a little bitty baby boy I always had my nose in a book or my fingers tapping at a typewriter or clutching playing cards.

Well, not since I was a baby boy. I’m no whiz-kid, especially not at age twenty-six. But I’ll confess that I have no problem describing myself as completely, utterly, and happily…uncool.

I mean, who does stuff like this? Who at my age - or at any age - wakes up early on Sunday mornings to write politically-charged and Zen-infused rants on something that sounds so dweeby as a “blog?” This is totally uncool.

For that matter, who the hell else my age wakes up early on a Saturday morning as a progressive Democrat to hang onto every word of…the local Tea Party? And then, instead of going home to write about it immediately (and there will be lots to write about in the coming days) decides it’s time to fiddle around with some of those nerdy playing cards?

No more games, folks. Soundpolitic Sundays continues below the fold…

First of all, allow me to explain my happiness with being uncool. I really can’t do so without pointing out my all-time favorite film: Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. A quick synopsis:

Our young protagonist, William Miller, finds out he’s much younger than his overbearing, freak-out-inducing college professor mother has lead him to believe. She’s sheltered him and his sister from her perceived horrors of rock and roll in the late 1960s. Our heroes sister leaves home, bestowing her record collection upon him. He falls in love, and then we flash-forward a few years and he is fifteen years old, about to graduate high school, and is writing freelance rock criticism for a local underground publication. He meets his idol, Lester Bangs - a real life rock critic and probably the best of all time and portrayed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman - who describes both himself and the boy as “uncool.” But Bangs still gives William an assignment: 1,000 words on an upcoming Black Sabaath show.

It is there he meets up with the fictional opening band, Stillwater. The guys in the band take well to him, as does one of their groupies (played by Best Supporting Actress, Kate Hudson) and the boy ends up getting permission to follow the band on the road for a couple of days after Rolling Stone gets word of William’s work. Naturally, this couple of days becomes a romp across America for an extended period of time and the story goes into consideration for the cover of the magazine. Without getting into too many more details, Miller finds himself under intense pressure after some crazy coming-of-age wildness and has only one night to write the biggest piece of his life. He calls Lester Bangs for advice and the following conversation ensues:

That’s me. Uncool. And that’s my favorite quote of all time:

“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool. Listen, my advice to you, and I know you think these guys are your friends. If you want to be a true friend to them: be honest. And unmerciful.”

Now I used to project myself into this movie as an aspiring musician myself. I am the former bassist of Albany-based string rockers Black Mountain Symphony. I weaseled my way into the band in early 2001 for two main reasons. First, when I saw them play at one of only three parties I went to during high school, I knew that placing violin in rock and roll as an integral part of the music was the next logical step. Second, I had to do something to stop being uncool! And I had a good shot because the core of the band were two of my best childhood friends. So I picked out the bass player as the worst member (they turned his amplifier off during live shows) and then badgered them every day to join as anything: back-up vocals, second guitar, tambourine, quarters. Yes, at one point, I was certain I would be in the band for doing nothing but clinking quarters together in front of a microphone. They were having fun with me.

But one day, right before an important track meet (I was captain of the team) my best friend came to me and said the bass player couldn’t make it to practice. This was my shot to grab the second-hand bass I’d been self-teaching myself with and get in the band. I raced home, still in my track uniform, and grabbed the hunk of junk, went to the practice, and was in the band. Finally, I was cool.

And I remained cool up until 2008. To tell the story of why I left would take way too long. But in a nutshell, I determined that I’m just too uncool at my core. That, and I have a tendency to over-think my bass playing, and that wasn’t up to par with their musicianship. And there were intense conflicts regarding the music business in a market of malaise (the Albany scene pretty much sucks except for it’s unique pocket of revolutionary string rock bands that get none of the press they deserve…I digress). These conflicts of musicality and business sense were too much of a threat to my friendships I’d forged within the band.

That, and I was finishing my paralegal degree (uncool!) and getting into political volunteering (uncool!) and doing lots of (uncool!) blogging about it. In short, I didn’t’ want to play silly games with my friends or my life anymore. I did exactly what Lester Bangs warned about: I became friends with the band. I let myself be fooled into thinking I was cool when I was not.

But damn did it feel good! In high school, I wasn’t known for doing something cool like playing the bass. My reputation had much more to do with silly little games. Namely, Magic: The Gathering.

This one may also required a bit of explanation. Basically, Magic was created in 1993 by a mathematician named Richard Garfield. He wanted to create a portable, expandable game for Lord of the Rings and Dungeons and Dragons dweebs (like me) to play while waiting in line at comic conventions and movie openings. What he ended up creating basically saved a floundering industry; today, Magic: The Gathering is the bread and butter of every game shop in the nation and the company that makes it, Wizards of the Coast, is one of the biggest success stories in the gaming industry. They own everything!

So what is the game? The simplest way to put it is that it’s a collectible card game. Think about it in terms of a game that’s played with baseball cards. You purchase packs of cards and with your own unique card pool, construct a deck to play with. The best “players” are rarer than others and your “team” can consist of whoever you want.

That’s it in a nutshell. But it is so incredibly deep and full of strategy as well as so mystical in the way the fantasy material is presented in the artwork and the rules themselves that it captivated me upon first sight when I was a tween-ager. So I became one of those weirdoes at the lunch table everyday playing a weirdo card game and proving myself to be on a completely other level of weird uncoolness.

But really, this is all just a part of my passion for all things written printed, anything imagined and created, and the simple joy of combining personal intellectual stimulation and interpersonal friendly competition that games give to all of us. So, I still play Magic. And I’ve collected other wacky cards games over the years as well. I’ve never been much for the standard 52-card deck. These games are fun, too, but they seem so normal to me. The cards never really change, just the rules.

So how many of you are asking “How the hell does this relate to politics? What happened at the Tea Party you went to, Soundpolitic!?”

I’ll get to that in a future column. All I’ll say is this: so much happened at the Tea Party meeting, including my usurping it by getting a dissenting last word in, that I just had to take a break. It does no good to fixate on only one thing or to not take a break and let things soak in. This is the other lesson of Almost Famous. See, I know realize that I was identifying with the wrong cast of characters (the band) instead of the main character: the uncool writer.

Writing is basically what I do best, and I never had any goals of becoming cool or famous by doing it. I like to write, as Lester Bangs says in the film, “Just to fuckin’ write,” and today, I have the Internet as a way to share my dribbling with anyone willing to suffer through it. One way for me to make my writing better is to sit on the rough drafts, or even put off drafting until my ideas are fully formed….

So instead of transcribing my tapes and organizing my notes to bang out a crap piece of writing (like I’m doing now!) for this week’s column, I took out my Magic cards and built some decks. I named them “Sticks and Stones” and “Stars and Stripes.” If you want to know more about the particular style of Magic I play, head on over to It’s a variant of the game that uses all the same rules, but restricts the cards you can use to build your custom decks: no expensive cards are allowed.

To understand this, be advised that the rarest Magic cards are also the most powerful, and therefore are all-but-necessary to use if you want to win zillions of dollars winning sanctioned Magic tournaments. Believe me: there’s a class of professional players who make a ludicrous living just playing Magic cards. I admire these guys about as much as I do rock stars and I don’t know a single Magic player who wouldn’t aspire to be them by playing the same decks of powerful cards.

Thus, there has sprung a secondary market for the cards where single cards are sold, much like baseball cards, where the rarest, most powerful cards can top fifty bucks a pop. And since you can include up to four copies of one card, and each deck included sixty cards, the most powerful tournament decks - for cards that are still in print, mind you - can often be worth over five-hundred bucks on this secondary market.

This is something I cannot afford having been out of work for the past one year and three-and-a-half weeks. So I play Pauper Magic. I only use cards that cost about a quarter a pop and only build decks that would sell for about fifteen bucks, if that. By the way, it feels really good to beat expensive decks with one of these.

Anyway, this is about the price I paid for another silly little game that finally (finally!) ties this column in with real silly little political games. This is one you might like. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, Obama! The Card Game!

Looks pretty neat, eh? Man, when I found out about this a few weeks ago I just had to have it. Not only did the game’s mechanics seem simple enough to pick up yet deceptively deep enough to provide for some interesting strategy, but it looks laugh-out-loud hilarious.

After having played a few rounds with friends, the verdict is clear. This is a game that makes fun of everybody, Obama himself included. You’ve got cards with names like “Super Obama Woman!” and “Joe Bidin’ His Tongue” as well as “Paylin Botches Another Interview” and “Out-Debate McPain.” There’s cartoon pictures of Mr. Obama wearing a big gold chain like Flava Flav, and another one of him making a slam dunk like Michael Jordan.

My personal favorite? Obama in full George Washington garb, wig flying off in the wind, as he crosses the Delaware in a speedboat with wildly cheering supporters, family members, a scuba diver, and a fish giving the whole crew a big, wet, raspberry “Thppt!” It’s fucking hilarious!

Now, this might be old news to you. Check out the card game’s website and it’s pretty clear that this game was made to be sold at Obama inauguration. And I’ll admit: while it makes fun of everybody, it seems only slightly slanted toward the pro-Obama camp simply because it doesn’t really condemn him in any strong way with regard to policy. It just pokes fun for the sake of being fun.

I can recall guys like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity getting all upset that people were “cashing in” on the inauguration. It was all some big scam to make more money for “The Anointed One” and was obviously all ACORN’s illegal doing.

So much for free-market capitalism. The game’s designers obviously figured that there’s a demand for something like this. Why? Simple: because of uncool people like me! I eat this shit up and love every second of it, from the second I smell the advertisement to the tasting of the rulebook to the swallowing of the game experience right on down to shitting out the remains in crappy pieces of writing like this.

I wonder what Rush and Hannity would say about Obama Nation. It’s another one I really want just because I love non-traditional card games, especially if they’re politically tinged.

Yet I don’t hold up much hope for it being an actually good game. This is for mechanical and political reasons. I can tell by reading the game’s rule that there really isn’t much to it. And I can tell, while it makes fun of the entire political system, that it’s definitely geared towards the Tea Party audience. It seems like a simple matching game, and it’s all about pork-barrel spending and all the politicians are caricatured as pigs. So it’s clearly playing to Orwellian paranoia currently being aimed at the current Democratic majority in Congress and the Democratic President.

Say, here’s a couple questions to quickly consider: Where was the piggy-faced card game with a name like “Bush Whacked” back when it was the Republican President umtwadoopling the deficit and the Republican Congress allowing things like Enron and derivatives to happen? And why does “Obama Nation” seem to have simpler mechanics as an antagonistic flavor (the name is meant to sound like the word “abomination”) when compared to just “Obama! The Game” which employs more strategic game play while taking shots at everyone across the board.

And, hey: isn’t the former just cashing in on a political movement the same way the first one was? Fie!

Thus, these silly political games us uncool hobby-shop patrons play strike me as a very telling allegory relating to the real political games being played. And these were on full display at the Tea Party meeting I went to this weekend.

But by that, I don’t mean the Tea Partiers were “playing games” like the Backstreet Boys “Quit Playing Games With My Heart.” Or even playing games the way our State government is currently playing regarding the proposed New York State parks closures. Not that way.

Nope - at the local Tea Party, I saw people playing by the rules The same rules that we progressive, Democratic activists played by in order to win back the Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008. I saw - dare I say it in this forum - that we really do have more in common with the Tea Partiers than we perceive.

Let me put it like this: while we may have built our decks differently, with different ideological cards customized to executive our unique plans to win, the Tea Party is seeking the same objective within the very same framework as us.

And we are all, each last one of us, Tea Partiers and “Obamacrats,” down to the last click of the keyboard, totally uncool - and damn proud of it.

American representative democracy is no game. But politics, the art of getting what you want and strategizing to get it, certainly is just a game. In that game, there are rules, objectives, strategies that have been tried and those we have yet to discover. And both sides<.I>, the progressive movement and the Tea Party, are both reading the same rule-book, shuffling decks we’ve built from the same larger card-pool, and are getting ready for the deals to take place in the summer and fall.

But so far on blogs like this, we have spent far too much time simply condemning our opponents, or being conniving to them. This is a huge mistake. In my experience in playing silly little games, one thing holds true: if I focus too much on my opponent’s strategic blunders, I will make twice as many mistakes of my own.

And If we get hung up thinking that they can’t even tell a club from a diamond, then our hearts are sure to be made to pay in spades.

I think this is what President Obama was talking about back when he was Candidate Obama:

“[W]e will remember that there is something happening in America; that we are not as divided as out politics suggest; that we are one people; we are one nation; and together, we will continue the next great chapter in America’s story[.]

- Barack Obama, January 8, 2008

Emphasis mine - SP

That’s what I intend to keep in mind as I write the next chapter of Soundpolitic Sundays. Thanks for reading, stay tuned and keep up the good work!

1 comment:

Soundpolitic said...

By the way, here's a link to the part of Almost Famous where William Miller meets Lester Bangs for context.

It's from the bootleg version of the film, so it's got some outtakes that really should have been included in the full feature release.