Monday, May 30, 2011

Little Gold

Happy Memorial Day everyone! Do I have a treat for you today...

So - I took a non-fiction writing class recently, and I got to do quite a bit of writing for it, on top of critiquing, and perhaps most important of all, revising, which is a muscle I've rarely flexed on my own in the past. Having seen the the incredible results that come through revision though, I now most certainly see the value of doing it all the time.

I'm going to slowly put some if not all of my pieces from the class here on this blog. All of them will be revised to a satisfactory degree (i.e. until I get sick of reading my own writing), and given the extra special Matt Shafeek Seal of Approval. Some pieces will be longer and will probably be broken up into parts, but today's is a shorter piece I wrote for one of my first exercises in class.

Without further ado, I present to you: "Little Gold." Enjoy!


Little Gold

Throughout my childhood I developed a nasty relationship with a lot of really unhealthy food. Candy, soda, chips, sugar, salt, fat. I had little tolerance for anything that qualified as less than flavoriffic. Though I was a mostly obedient child (my mother said my “terrible two’s” were mostly spent drawing and coloring) I put my foot down at mealtime. I only wanted to eat what tasted great. Nothing I ate ever contributed an ounce my near-skeletal frame, and any concerns regarding sugar intake, heart disease and cholesterol were decades away, so I saw no reason not to eat what I wanted, when I wanted, danger be damned. And what I wanted to eat was usually Doritos.

Doritos - named after the term “little gold” in Spanish - took a particularly strong hold on me at a very young age. I brought them with me to my elementary school every single day in my bagged lunch. During lunch I’d take a bite of my sandwich, and whatever kind of sandwich it was - ham and cheese, turkey, or peanut butter and jelly, I would always be sure to cleanse my palate with a chip in between each bite. I also had larger bags of them waiting for me at home for after school and then for after dinner. I started heated debates over the respective values of each of the two flavors: Nacho Cheese - which I thought of as palette-pleasing perfection - versus Cool Ranch - a bland, boring afterthought of a flavor, barely more worthy of your time than a disgusting bag of ordinary, unflavored Lays. I lived for the brief but delightful moment of licking my fingers clean after finishing a bag. If you asked me at this point in my life which one food I would bring with me to survive on a desert island for the rest of my life, there wouldn’t be a moment’s hesitation.

Doritos were my obsession. I even came up with what I thought was a brilliant snacking technique involving my crunchy ambrosia that I thought would revolutionize the way people thought about their food. One night, down to my final Doritos reserves in my bedroom, I decided the eat them a little differently than usual - I took one chip out of the bag at a time, and slowly licked off every last speck of nacho cheese flavoring on it before finally eating the remaining saliva-filled, soggy (but still tasty!) tortilla carcass. I realized that by extending the amount of time invested in each chip, you’d make a $2.50 bag last hours, possibly even days! This was a true moment of ingenuity, and to think I came up with it at the tender age of eight years old! Starving families would be able to survive on a single bag per week, and self-conscious dieters now had a way to indulge with only a fraction of the guilt! All it would take was a little bit of discipline. Discipline, that sadly, I myself couldn’t maintain.

My undying love for America’s favorite tortilla chip was tested on March 18th, 1987, a day that will forever live in nacho cheese-flavored infamy.  In the lunchroom at P.S. 138, during the course of eating my lunch as quickly as possible in order to squeeze in as much outside play time as possible, a 1.5” wide triangular piece of nacho flavored goodness* lodged itself inside of my 7 year old throat, restricting the passage of air to my lungs.

I was choking, I was dying, I was being done in by a Dorito!  “Fixthisfixthisfixthisfixthis!!!” was the only thought going through my head, shoving aside for perhaps the first time in my life concerns of this afternoon’s television and video game schedule. I stumbled and ran to the nearest adult, coughing and pointing at my throat. It was a 5th grade teacher, Mr. Barshay, who quickly summoned an incredibly resourceful lunch lady who jumped into action without a moment’s hesitation. Treating me like the tiny little ragdoll I was, she turned me around, placed her arms around me, made a fist with her hands, centered at my gut and pushed in and up. In and up. In and up. The culprit was soon dislodged and it came flying out of my mouth along with a whimper in an otherwise silent lunchroom. As my face slowly returned to its normal color, I thanked the lunch lady (who, thanks to a combination of confused shame and youthful ignorance, remains forever nameless and faceless in my mind), barely making eye contact, and quickly returned to my seat, hoping that the quicker I got there, the quicker we could all pretend what just happened never happened.

The next day over the loudspeaker our principal Mr. Post announced to the entire school the story of how a seemingly harmless tortilla chip nearly killed a second grader (who naturally, had to be named), but I was thankfully saved by a quick acting employee in the lunchroom. I buried my head under my arms to a chorus of laughter from my classmates, who certainly didn’t need the reminder. I hadn’t been this embarrassed since kindergarten, when I quickly discovered that other boys didn’t just drop their pants in front of the urinal to pee.

That morning, I was made fully aware of four brand new emotions: powerlessness, humiliation, irrational fears of eating and swallowing. Most of was the conflicting emotion of being betrayed by something I love. For two weeks I stayed away from that salty siren call, albeit mostly at my mother’s behest. Inevitably though, I was lured back. Whether it was sheer ignorance, addiction or an extreme form of brand loyalty (Bravos simply weren’t cutting it), I soon returned to my old ways, scarfing down Doritos less than a month after nearly being killed by them.

*goodness ingredients & information: ground corn, vegetable oil and salt, coated in cheese powder, buttermilk powder, wheat flour, whey protein concentrate, tomato powder, flavor enhancers, onion powder, whey powder, garlic powder, dextrose, sugar, mineral salt, food acids, flavor (natural), spices, and colors (#129, #150, and #110), deep fried, mass produced and marketed at the time by Jay Leno in a national advertising campaign (“Crunch all you want, we’ll make more,” I still remember him saying)

Friday, May 20, 2011

An Open Letter To Author and Game Designer Jane McGonigal

Dear Dr. McGonigal,

Hi there! My name is Matt Shafeek. I'm a writer, performer and gamer from New York City. I started this blog 3 years ago when I decided to give up my lifelong habit of playing video games for one full year as a personal challenge (there was a contract signing and everything). It was quite an experience - I wrote more, I started cooking regularly, and I ran the NYC Half Marathon, amongst other things (you can read more about it in my FAQ if you're interested). It was a great year. But after it was over, there was no doubt in my mind that I still wanted to play video games. I loved them too much to give them up forever. Ever since that time I've thought a lot about what continues to draw me to games even though logically I clearly could be doing a lot more "productive" things with my time, like learning how to sew, or open up a savings account.

This is you! (In case you've forgotten, in which case don't panic the next time you look in the mirror!)
I first heard your name when a friend forwarded me your interview on the Colbert Report. I saw the interview, and was intrigued. But I was convinced buying your book would be somehow masturbatory - not because you're super hot (you are) and I really can't control myself (I can't), but because then I'd just have a book I could show off to all my friends that justified my addictive habits.

Then I missed your keynote speech while I was at PAX East this year, because, well, you weren't Wil Wheaton. But then I finally took a look at your book at the merch stand while I was there, and I decided it would be a more valuable purchase than another t-shirt with the Fruit Fucker on it.

Seriously, I can't get enough of this guy.
Reality is Broken was, for me, the equivalent of Einstein uncovering the theory of relativity, only way more personal. I shouldn't say that. For all I know, Einstein's discovery was deeply personal, and it totally made his year, saved his marriage, and maybe sex was better for him afterward. Who knows. The point is - you finally made all the pieces in my head make sense. You put into words what I've been trying to say for years using my very limited vocabulary.

It wasn't anything like the apologist manifesto I assumed it was going to be. You thoroughly explained why we all love games, and what draws us to them. Why we experience such thrilling highs and get them by seeking out 'unnecessary challenges' and 'hard fun' was incredibly insightful. "Fiero" [for any non-Jane McGonigal readers, it's the euphoria we feel after triumphing over adversity, something we are capable of doing over and over again in our games] is honestly a word I've been searching for my whole life.

Then you go on to posit what we as a society can do with that love to better improve our lives in the real world (right after we max out all our levels, open every last treasure chest, and beat the final boss in all our games, of course). And it's not just some empty theory - you back it up with tons of projects, many of which you started yourself, that show gamers in action, working towards a common goal of making a difference in the real-world. Really amazing stuff.

This is me! (Full disclosure: I'm not actually six feet tall. I am however, brilliant with photoshop)
Let me stop summarizing your own book to you and get to the point of this letter: I've been inspired by your writing, and your work and I would very much love to work for you and/or your organization in some capacity. That's right - you just fell for the classic "flattering blog post into resume drop trap." Don't worry - it happens to the best of us. But don't stop reading now, because there's definitely something of vital, earth-shattering importance to you coming up really soon.

While my game-creating skills are still in their infancy (technically I've made zero so far, but it is on my bucket list), I do have many other talents. I've written and performed in a one-man video game-themed show. I've been an improviser for the past 9 years or so. I also perform with a group called Improv Everywhere who did something at the New York Public Library, where your upcoming game is being held. I've also done quite a bit of writing on this blog. On the business-y side of things, I've managed offices, assisted an executive or two, and I even ran my own small business for a while. Finally, I belong to not one, but two different board game groups, who will totally attest to how much fun/beer I'm known to bring to the table.

What is there not to both love and hire here?

Jane McGonigal, the world needs people like you. And the world also needs people like me who are able to assist people like you in realizing their vision. After all, what are you even doing reading this right now? You have so many more important things you should be doing instead! If I was working for you, I would totally have screened this nonsense and flagged it as: "distracting - disregard."

So, in closing:

1) Thank you for writing such a fantastic book.
2) I'm Matt Shafeek, I think I'm pretty great, and hopefully by now you do too.
3) If there is ever an opening within your organization, I would love to be considered for it.
(I'm leaving this section bit-free to ensure there is no confusion about my very real intentions)

Have a terrific, stupendous, gamified day.

Matt Shafeek (matt dot shafeek at gmail dot com)
McGonigite 4 Life

PS: If you haven't played Portal 2 yet, you totally have to.

PPS: Super bummed I discovered Find The Future too late to participate in its inaugural launch. But I hope to participate in whatever the second iteration looks like.

PPPS: You know you have both a Ben Folds and a Barenaked Ladies song named after you? Both songs are great, you should totally check them out them if you haven't heard them before.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Bill & Ted's Totally Awkward Reunion

Twenty-two years ago, two budding thespians on the road to stardom made a movie together. Their names were Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter. The movie was Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, which was about two time travelling teenagers who pass their high school's history class by literally bringing historical figures back to the present to help give them the necessary edge to their otherwise complete lack of knowledge of world history. This is of course thanks to Rufus (played by the late, great George Carlin), who has traveled from the future in order to ensure that these two stay together in order to become Rock Gods that lead the world to a Utopian society, or something.

That's what I remember at least. I saw this movie at the age of 10, loved it, and plan on never seeing it again, lest my rose-tinted glasses shatter right on my cynical 32 year-old face. (Fun fact: Bill and Ted were actually based on two characters that the writers had created in improv scenes, so keep an eye out for my upcoming screenplay: Blue Collar Porn Addict and Repeated Alien-Sighting Mayor's Terrific Times Together)

After a successful box office debut, Mr. Reeves and Mr. Winter both reprised their roles as Ted. "Theodore" Logan and Bill S. Preston, Esq., respectively, in a not-quite-as-successful sequel, Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, as well as a brief animated series, my memories of which are limited to snippets of the theme song, which featured three of their signature catchphrases: "Excellent!" "Bogus!" and "Most Triumphant!"

Now, exactly 20 years since either actor has portrayed their prolific roles in these timeless works of cinema and animated masterpieces, there are talks of a third film being written to close out the inevitable trilogy. Given the incredible disparate paths Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter's careers have taken since 1991, I'd give almost anything to be a fly on the wall the first time they're in a room together once this film begins shooting.

Of course, there's no need to even wonder, because I'm going to play this thing out right now:

"Hey, man, could you get me a Fresca with my turkey club?"

"Keanu! Bro, it's me! Alex Winter!"

"Oh shit, hey! I uh, I'm so sorry man..."

"No problem man! Heh, you know, I didn't even recognize you at first. We're both SO OLD, amiright?"

"Well, there is a blog out there that's all about how I look like I haven't aged a day in 20 years, but sure, I'll roll with that. Anyways, how are you man? What have you been up to?"

"Well, I was on Bones a couple of years ago - that was fun. I played a criminal who liked to eat his victims, so all he left behind guessed it! Bones!! And you know, a lot of muscle too, 'cause human muscle is not really edible. Anyways, right now I got this gig as the Mole King on Saul of the Mole Men. Have you seen Saul of the Mole Men?"

"Can't say that I have..."

"Yeah, well neither have I, actually. The Mole King has some funny lines though, and I'd like to think I did them justice."

"Great man, great. I'm...very happy for you."

"Hey, don't patronize me. I know it's nothing compared to being you know, a big movie star or whatever..."

"I didn't mean to..."

"Didn't mean to WHAT? Make the inevitable comparison to our respective careers? Huh, my time travelling compadre?? Jesus, look at you. You really let Rufus down, you know that?"

"Rufus? You mean, the character from our movies?"

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said anything. You were never the smart one. And of course you still prefer this heinous reality."


"Goddamn it, Kea-nu, you played NEO for Christs sake! Think about it for a minute - why did Rufus tell us to never break up??"

"Uh, fuck, I don't really remember. Our band's music would save the world, or something?"

"Dear God you're so far gone it's PATHETIC. Wyld Stallyns' music was going to bring about a UTOPIA, Ted. As in, a perfect society!"

"Did you just call me Ted?"

"Yeah, I did Ted, or would you prefer I call you Theodore? Man, this is one totally bogus, sorry, SHITTY trip you're taking me on right now. Let's hurry up and get to the set so we can set things right."

"What are you talking about, set what things right?"

"You still don't see it, do you man? We created an alternate timeline, Ted! We took the phone booth one too many times and we wound up in this most un-triumphant world."


"I know it sounds crazy. Even Rufus was brainwashed too. He was out there performing...stand up comedy. He wouldn't listen to I had to put him out of his misery."

"You...killed George Carlin?!?"

"It's ok man! He was just a time-imposter! Once we hop back into the time booth, we can fix everything. We'll stop ourselves from ever making Bogus Journey, I'll make better career choices, and everything will be ok. Come on now, let's go!"

"You're insane. I'm not going anywhere."

"I think this gun with an intimidating white box around it begs to differ."

"Whoa. Ok, Ale-uh, Bill..."

"Say my full name. SAY IT!"

"Ok, ok - Bill S. Preston, Esquire. Happy? You win. I'll go with you. 
Hey, I have an idea - why don't we air guitar one more time real quick, for old times' sake?"

"Really? You mean it? I'd love to. What should we air guitar to?"

"To righting wrongs, my most excellent friend."

"Ok! To righting wr-"

"My gun! tricked me. You didn't want to air guitar at all!"

"I couldn't let you do it, Bill."

"Wait, you're still calling me Bill. Does that mean..."

"I still don't really know what to believe. I mean, shit, I wake up most days unsure if I'm trapped in the Matrix, or if at any minute I'm going to be attacked by demons from hell. Also I'm constantly check to see if my mailbox is a portal to the future. Maybe none of it is true, maybe all of it is. I can really never be sure."


"But don't you see? Either way, this reality turned out amazing for me. You gotta respect that, bro. I'm a gazillionaire, I'm banging tons of chicks, and fuck, people follow me around taking pictures of me just eating sandwiches, wondering if I'm sad. This world is obsessed with me!"

"I guess you're right. Why would you want to go back to just being a time-travelling teenager when you already have it all? I'd probably do the same thing in your position."

"So now you understand why I have do this..." [CLICK]

"Yes, I suppose I do..."

"Party on, Bill."

"Party on Te-wait, wasn't it Wayne and Garth that said th-"
[BANG!] "Urgh...ughhhh."

"Rest in peace, old friend. And now, to fly away! Hmpppp! Damn. That still doesn't work."


I let my imagine run a little wild there. Wheeeeeeeee! 

Interesting fact - although Keanu Reeves has experienced much more commercial/financial success, Alex Winter is now married with children, and much to my surprise (since I knew everything else I reference about him in this post in advance) Keanu Reeves has actually never been married. 

Maybe there is something to whole "Sad Keanu," thing huh?

"How am I still not as happy as HIM!!!"