Has it been another year already? Damn, I'm getting old. Alright, I guess it's time to assess the last year and account for the things I've learned.
#1. Chuck E. Cheese's Isn't So Bad
There's not a single happy person in this scene
Before 2012, when I thought of the kid's arcade/pizza joint Chuck E. Cheese's, only two things came to mind: vague childhood memories of screaming and general unhappiness, and a scene from the movie Parenthood in which young Kevin Buckman loses his retainer at a Chuck E. Cheese's-style place, leading to a ridiculous amount of trauma and parents who rifle through trash before getting into a car accident over a blowjob. In other words, I wouldn't have considered it a happy place.
In 2012, however, Tommy was invited to a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese's and we were obliged to go. I prepared myself for the soulless eyes of teenage employees, the disturbing, creaky sounds coming from rusty, terrifying animatronics, and urine-soaked ball pits beside broken arcade games from the 1980's, all on top of a splotchy carpet that emits smells so terrible even Cthulhu would cringe. Fortunately, my preparations were in vain, because Chuck E. Cheese's is much better than I expected. The games are actually pretty cool: they still have the obligatory air hockey and skee-ball, but they also have cool jetpack simulators, a surprisingly clean play area for the youngest ones, games that actually require you to throw things at a giant HD screen, and Guitar Hero. Plus, the staff is extremely well-trained, able to hide the mind-shattering terror of dealing with toddlers every day behind a comforting smile and a relaxed attitude. I can't speak for every Chuck E. Cheese's establishment, of course, but I can say that, at the one I went to, my son had such a good time that we took him there again for his own birthday party just last week. It's entirely possible that parental eyes are biased by the smile on their kid's face, but if mine are, I'm okay with it.
#2. Digital Publishing Isn't Insane Anymore
Think of it as a complement, not a replacement
I do not apologize for dismissing the well-intentioned advice I have received over the last several years to try self-publishing digitally, because it used to be 100% true that digital self-publishing was career suicide. However, I attended a writer's conference in New York a while back in which it became clear to me (and several other writers) that the stigma is lifting, that the democratization of the publishing industry is at hand. This is a remarkable switch from writers conferences I attended a few years earlier, where we all commisserated with each other about how a declining economy and power-clinging publishing oligopoly ensured that no one could get published unless they were somebody famous and established.
I'm not trying to say that digital publishing is the perfect way to go--I've done a lot of relearning over the last few months, and the bottom line is it all depends on your priorities and your capacity for patience--but it is now a viable way to get your foot in the door. The publishing industry is actually paying attention now instead of turning its nose at the future. If you believe your work can build its own audience on its own merits, you can now put it out there and put that belief to the test. Though I'm not even close to ready to announce anything yet, I will say that I am currently doing some heavy polishing on some of my best stuff. My future as a writer actually looks brighter now that it has looked in quite some time, and if I can build on this (and the publication of "Somatoform Purgatory" last year as well), anything is possible.
#3. You Don't Have to Be an Old Lady to Clip Coupons
You're probably an old lady if you keep a coupon scrapbook, though
Anybody who has been grocery shopping lately knows that food prices have been on a not-so-gentle upward curve. As such, if you live on a tight budget, you have to start weighing your options in terms of how best to save money on food. Unwilling to return to the college diet of ramen and leftover pizza (I still eat these things, but my diet is a touch broader now), my family and I have started finding new workarounds to afford the kinds of foods we like to eat. On top of the predictable things (eating out less, comparison grocery shopping, being willing to experiment with generic brands, etc.), I've also become something of a coupon junkie.
Mind you, I'm not one of these extreme couponers you see on TLC who spend six hours planning every shopping trip so that they can buy $500 worth of canned tuna and mac & cheese for $1.23, but I have learned that just a few minutes going through mail coupons, online coupons, and special deals--along with doing some creative meal planning--can go a long way to cutting into that weekly food budget. If you calculate it like an hourly wage, just ten minutes of work can be equivalent to making $30 an hour. If that makes me an old lady, so be it; I'm an old lady.
#4. Potty Training Sucks
There will be screaming
I've heard tales of children who take to potty training like a pregnant woman takes to chocolate ice cream, kids who seem to understand the underlying concepts, what's expected of them, and how to handle the situation. Some even claim that you can potty train a child in a day, a week at most. Let me step away from these stories and introduce you to something called reality, where unicorns aren't real, karma doesn't prevent bad things from happening to good people, Jersey Shore is popular enough to get renewed year after year, and potty training is the most stressful part of parenting since the birthing process. If you're about to enter this wonderful world, you'd better read up on how to clean poop stains from your couch and how to watch someone urinate on the floor and then reassure them that they didn't do anything wrong.
This is the first time you have to teach a child that the way they've been doing something is absolutely wrong and that if they don't change, they cannot be admitted into civilized society anymore. Toddlers don't really understand how digestion works or that poop comes out of their butt (until they witness this curious event for themselves), much less why anybody would believe that not wearing diapers is somehow preferable to wearing them, so this is a pretty complex and confusing set of skills for them to learn. It takes a lot of time, understanding, patience, patience, patience, patience, and patience. If you're not prepared for that--and if you think potty training is no big deal--do yourself and your unborn children a favor: don't have them.
#5. This is Not a Center-Right Country Anymore
All elections should be done in a cutesy cartoon style
For decades now, it's been popular common knowledge that this country leans, on average, a little to the right of the political spectrum, that we are generally more conservative as a nation than liberal. The 2012 election results dispell this myth. Perhaps you can look at the Democratic win as a failure for a viable alternative to appear (Mitt Romney was hardly the most endearing candidate from the right), but you cannot deny that the American people looked at a president who is an avowed fighter of class warfare, a believer in bigger and bigger entitlements, the biggest government spender in the history of planet Earth, a fan of government mandates and greater entitlements, and a quasi-Keynesian follower of the notion that the government can cure a faltering economy through higher deficits, and decided he deserved to be re-elected, even with an unemployment rate still hovering around 8%, food prices still inching upwards, and the wildly unpopular Obamacare law set to go into full effect in 2014.
You can explain this however you like. Disdain for social conservativism is at an all-time high; popular media and academia are more forgiving of liberal leaders than ever (Fox News notwithstanding); and the Republican party is looking to weaklings like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner to lead them. Regardless of the reasons, though, it is unquestionable that America no longer leans to the right.
#6. Pouting is Nature's Way of Keeping Parents from Eating Their Young
"Oh yeah? Well, I'm going to punish you by being completely quiet and still for a few minutes! Take that!"
When I was a kid, my parents always gave me a hard time if I started pouting after they scolded me. I hear other parents do it, too, growling at their offspring, "Oh, stop that pouting and be glad I didn't rip off your other arm!" Frankly, this baffles me. When my son gets into a pouting fit, I lean back, take a deep breath, relax, and enjoy the blessed silence. Seriously, if he didn't pout after one of his level five toddler meltdowns, I would have sold him on the black market ages ago.
Of course I get it, though. Children try pouting at their parents to test their resolve, and the parents who are susceptable to big eyes and guilt are prone to lashing out at the pouter. I have to do it sometimes too, not because I feel guilty for scolding my child when he deliberately dumps chocolate milk on my iPhone, but because if he actually figures out that pouting doesn't bother me, he'll move on to a different strategy, like more screaming. Actually, come to think of it, my parents scolding me and those other parents scolding their kids for pouting does make sense. Nothing makes a kid do something more often like convincing him his parents hate it. Well played, Mom and Dad, well played.
#7. Geeks are Unrelentingly Unforgiving
180 hours of fun + 15 disappointing minutes = worst game series ever?
A year ago, the Mass Effect franchise was riding high as one of the most beloved video game properties in the world. Now, if you spend any amount of time online looking for opinions on Mass Effect, you will discover that it is one of the most hated video game properties in the world. What happened? Put simply, fans didn't like how Mass Effect 3 ended, and so they completely dismissed everything that got them to that point--the amazing action, the perfect gameplay, the great storylines, and the deep universe--and decided that they had somehow been fooled over the last five years, that all that time they spent playing the games, reading the books, and throwing money at DLC packs just because they were hungry for more, was a complete waste.
I'm not going to try to convince you that the ending of Mass Effect 3 isn't flawed (I'm pretty sure fans would torch my house if they knew I expressed such an opinion on the Internet), nor am I going to try to argue that a terrible ending can't ruin a story, but I find no reason to look at the ending of Mass Effect 3 and think that it calls for dismissing one of the greatest video game franchises out there today. Thanks to the "fans," I'm guessing we won't see a Mass Effect 4, and for that, they should feel nothing but shame and regret.
#8. People Want to Believe You Are Black or White
But hey, it don't matter
Though I know it is unwise, I do not shy away from sharing my political opinions on the Internet. Unfortunately, people are so quick to form generalizations about me that they wind up misunderstanding me. I got a lot of that in 2012, even from people who know me personally. I voted for Mitt Romney, so I must hate homosexuals and the teaching of evolution. I supported the Patriot Act, so I must be in favor of drone warfare that kills children. I said I liked Paul Ryan, so obviously that means I agree with every stance he's ever taken on anything. Et cetera.
I have tried to counter this by showing how carefully I examine and re-examine my political beliefs--in 2012 I wrote an extensive series of essays about climate change and was exhaustive in my appraisal of the presidential candidates, for example--and though this is appreciated, I still get people making gross assumptions about me. This is human nature of course, and I'm sure I make similar assumptions about others as well. Luckily, there are a tiny handful of people who understand how I function and are willing to engage me in thoughtful, intellectually honest political debate, even when (or especially when) they disagree with me. You know who you are, and I would just like to say thank you. For the rest of you, please stop assuming you know my every belief just because you know a few others.
#9. The Tablet Computer is an Essential Parenting Tool of the 21st Century
Coloring without the risk of crayon marks on the ceiling? Sign me up!
I can imagine a world in a few years where people shake their heads and say, "I would never let my kid be raised by the iPad 12. Why, when I was young, my parents wouldn't let me touch their PC--I had to make do with television--and I turned out just fine." In a perfect world, a parent could raise a child with full 24-hour attention, daily trips to the playground, museum, and park, and nothing but interaction and education. However, parents are human beings--not robots--and it is also essential that children spend some time alone in their own worlds. You shouldn't let your child watch television from the moment he wakes up to the moment he goes to sleep, but you also shouldn't feel like a failure as a parent if, for the sake of your own sanity, you park your kid in front of the idiot box now and then.
However, my son, Tommy, has little patience for television. He would rather play with the iPad. (I would call it "my" iPad, but I'm not going to lie to you.) He has quickly mastered the thing, and gotten frighteningly good at Bad Piggies and disturbingly sadistic with Pocket God, not to mention his frequent visits to Netflix Instant Viewing to catch the occasional episode of Phineas and Ferb or Super Why. Sure, it's not as educational as one-on-one time with Daddy, but it's still teaching the kid valuable skills for the modern world (and helping to mold him into a future gamer so that his father can feel immense pride when Tommy finally beats him at Mario Kart). Besides, it's nice to have the occasional break to reassemble your broken parental mind. As such, I encourage all parents to put down the money for a decent tablet computer; it's well worth the investment.
#10. I Miss Hockey
Just think of that zamboni driver's family!
It's amazing that the NHL still hasn't learned its lesson from the repeated strikes of the last decade, one of which cost them an entire season. In 2012, they had yet another labor dispute, leading to a lockout that was only resolved yesterday, meaning the 2012-2013 season has been cut so much that it might as well be refered to as just the 2013 season. I'm not a sports guy--I freely admit that--but early in 2012, I got a new HD TV and a new digital cable service and was able to watch almost all of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs. It was awesome, and I was really looking forward to being able to watch plenty of hockey when the game resumed for the following season.
I don't know the ins and outs of the labor dispute that has kept that season from resuming, nor do I particularly care. As I see it, everybody loses, especially the fans, when the game is put on hold for this long. Think of all that lost revenue and good will, not just for each and every hockey game that would have been played, but for merchandising, advertising, the hopes of NBC Sports taking on ESPN, the way hockey was just on the cusp of being as mainstream as basketball, baseball, and football, and much more. I can think of no deal good enough for the players or owners that would even begin to make up for all that, which means that regardless of the outcome, everybody comes out of this lockout in a worse place than when they went into it. But most of all, I just miss the game and can't wait for it to come back.
#11. Kids are the Ultimate Test of Your Immune System
There are more viruses and bacteria on that toy than there are in the entire CDC database
Once you send your child off to interact with other children, at daycare or pre-school or toddler gymnastics or whatever, your child will suddenly be exposed to a wide variety of exotic germs. I know I rolled my eyes at parents going crazy with the hand sanitizer in 2011, but last year, I had a greater appreciation for it. Perhaps the parents weren't trying to spare the children so much as they were trying to spare themselves.
You see, your child's budding immune system is incredibly powerful and adaptive, but he or she will still get sick pretty regularly once exposed to the snot, spit, and other bodily fluids of other kids. Thankfully, he or she will not stay sick long, because a child's capacity for bouncing back is astonishing, almost miraculous. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of a parent. I swear I spent more time sick in 2012 than I did healthy. I got sick every single time Tommy came home with a new disease, and while he was only symptomatic for a day or two, I was usually laid up for a week. Case in point: I'm sick right now, as I write this, and Tommy's running around the coffee table with no pants on, squealing happily.
#12. Twitter isn't for Me
I've tried. I've really, really tried. It came to my attention in 2012 that having a Twitter account and regularly posting tweets is a good tool for building an online presence and a platform upon which to build publicity. Therefore, I have started my own Twitter feed and have begun following other people. I have learned two things in the process: (1) all my idols are jerks and morons; and (2) I am not pithy.
At its absolute best, Twitter can be a repository of funny one-liners and inspiration, but most of the time, it's just a repository for random mental flotsam, angry politics, unfunny one-liners, shameless self-promotion, and stupid insults. I'm okay with the shameless self-promotion--as that is what I'm trying to use Twitter for (and it's not like the people who follow you aren't asking for it)--but the rest of it is just aggravating and asinine. Seriously, for every minute I spend on Twitter, I feel a point in my IQ drop and my cynicism rise. I will try to keep at it, but really, Twitter is a terrible, terrible place. So, hey, if you're not doing anything, follow me at @e_magill!