The Surprise(s)

I got home from school, went straight into my dad’s office, and fired up his computer.

Within moments, the system was up. A few swift keyboard commands fired up the internal modem. And chirps and clicks of static noise confirmed a successful connection to one of the many bulletin board systems I perused each and every day.

While browsing around some message threads, the screen suddenly went haywire with bursts of random, ASCII characters. My session locked up, and I was unable to enter any commands. I cursed in frustration, causing my dog to pop up in excitement at the noise.

Looking at the clock, it was 4:00pm, the time my mother regularly called to ensure I was safely home from school. Many times I had asked my mom not to do this, as her incoming calls always knocked me off of my modem connections, and getting reconnected to bulletin boards wasn’t the easiest of prospects. But since she refused to let me disable call waiting while I lived under her roof, we played this cat-and-mouse game each and every day. I picked up the phone, and indeed it was mom.

After chatting for a few minutes about the school day, mom asked, “Will you be there when we get home from work?”

I thought for a second. It was the day before Thanksgiving, so all of my friends were busy doing their own thing. I said, “As far as I know, sure.”

“OK, sweetie. Love you,” she said.

“Love you, too.” I hung up.

Moments after placing down the receiver, I realized what day it was. Sure, it was Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. But more importantly, it was Wednesday, as in “the day before Thursday”, as in “the normal day of the week when my favorite comic book shop received their new shipment of comics but instead got them one day earlier because of the holiday.” The shop would be open today but closed through the weekend. If I wanted new comics, I had to go…now!

I sprang into action. I grabbed my wallet and keys, hopped into my truck, and flew down Davis Parkway towards Hurst, the town that was home to the closest comic book shop. I got there with plenty of time before they closed, and the owner Stephanie was furiously trying to unpack the new shipments and get the shelves stocked. I helped her out a little, reading a quick comic book here and there between opening boxes. Because I was a regular customer, Stephanie held my favorite titles behind the counter, ensuring that my weekly reading list’s comics were never sold out before I could get my hands on them. I ended up spending quite awhile there. I eventually purchased my booty and headed back out in my truck.

Right before turning onto the highway heading home, I spied Best Buy and recalled that I hadn’t rewarded myself with a new CD in quite some time. I steered into the parking lot and spent an hour browsing the stacks. Eventually I settled on some discs and attempted to get back to Southlake.

While fumbling around with my in-dash CD player, I passed North Halls Mall on my left. The video arcade inside called to my soul, and I felt the irresistible urge to play some pinball and Galaga. Soon enough, a slowly depleting fistful of quarter-dollars filled my pocket, and somewhere video game designers were already cashing their holiday bonuses.

Finally, long after the sun had set, I made my way back to Southlake.

Moments after walking in the door, I was accosted by my parents. Both were sitting in the living room, sternly staring at me as I walked in, arms laden with plastic bags of pop culture goods. My mother barked, “Where the hell have you been?”

This was in the age before cell phones, when parents had to wait for their kids to call them — and they had to be home to receive such calls. But in general, my parents treated me with kid gloves, and as long as I returned home before it was too late or called to tell them where I was—both of which I failed to do–they weren’t particularly concerned with what I did.

But they were aware that I regularly drove south to get comic books each and every week. And even in the past when I’d fallen off the grid like this, they hadn’t reacted so sternly as they were now doing. I mouthed back defensively and very much like an obnoxious teenager, “I went to the comic book store to get my comics before Thanksgiving!” I punctuated my exasperation with a breathy, woe-is-me, get-off-my-back-man, “Shhhhhit!”

The two of them said that was fine, but they berated me for not calling or leaving a note. I had little fight in me, so I let them finish their lecture. I then shut myself in my bedroom at the front of the house to read my comics.

My High School Room

I lay on my bed, underneath a sea of posters and pictures dedicated to my favorite fictional heroes. I digested book after book, absorbing tales of earth-born mutants, Kryptonian-born saviors, and all-too-human everyday heroes.

Midway through my weekly ritual, a string of lights began to shine through the blinds. One after one, the sweeping beams of headlights swung left to right as a series of cars came up the curvy road leading to our house. Multiple vehicles were descending upon our farm. Yet since I was self-centered enough to not care unless I knew they had something to do with me, I ignored the event and resumed reading.

Through the thin walls, I could hear the doorbell, and Gos, Tyson, and Murphy barked in excitement at the prospect of visitors. I could hear the murmur of voices as several people entered the house and were greeted by my parents.

Moments later, the sound of shuffling footsteps came closer, capped with swift raps on my bedroom door.

Before I could say come it, open flew the door and standing in my room was every single one of my friends, with my girlfriend Pam forming the point of a visibly-annoyed phalanx of high-schoolers.

They barked in unison, “Where the hell have you been?”

Apparently déjà vu was also one of my friends.

I responded to them with the same annoyance I projected to my parents. “I went to the comic book store to get my comics before Thanksgiving! Fuckin’ A!”

When tempers finally cooled and notes were compared, it turned out there was an amazing orchestration of people and food that was thrown into chaos when I vanished earlier that afternoon.

It turns out that Pam and my friends had been secretly waiting for hours at a nearby pizza joint, so that my parents could bring me over for my surprise 18th birthday party — a surprise party which I had failed to show up for, because nobody bothered to me about it!

The whole gang was there: Pam, Micha, Matthew, Katie, Todd, Dan, George, Scott, Bill, and Nancy. And since they were tired of waiting for me to show up, they decided to bring the party to my place.

We had a silly time, goofing off within the house, outside on the volleyball court, and inside the barn.

It’s worth noting that up to this day, there had been a hard-fought detente between me and my friends regarding my girlfriend. Out of 136 other members of our senior class, I was seemingly the only person who got along with her. My friends tolerated her presence only because of how I felt about her, but such peace was tenuous at best.

While out in the barn, Pam had found one of my mother’s horsewhips, an artificial riding aid that my mother used sparingly to gentle coax her Tennessee Walking horses into proper form. Pam brought it into my group of friends and jokingly announced, “Oh, cool! S&M!” Everyone that laughed did so politely and without sincerity.

Pam then gave the whip a mild crack, inadvertently sending its tail straight into George’s face.

George’s cat-like reflexes saved his face just in time, but they weren’t quick enough to completely avoid the attack. The tip of the whip flicked him hard just below the eye as he fell back. Then in an explosion of anger, he flew forward and lunged at Pam, screaming at her, “What the fuck!?”

Her eyes grew into saucers as she realized the enormity of her mistake. All of us were aware that George had a fiery temper, but even I was surprised at how honestly scared I was for Pam. I jumped in between them to prevent the unfortunate scene of one of my best buddies beating the shit out of my girlfriend in my house on my birthday before all my friends.

It wasn’t until after Pam broke up with me months later that I realized that this was the moment in time when everyone stopped assuaging their intense dislike for her. Through their actions tonight and onward, my friends let me know that if I wanted to hang out with them, I sure as hell better not think of inviting her along.

Tempers eventually calmed down enough for everyone to gather in the kitchen for the best part of any birthday: presents and cake. I then discovered that it wasn’t all about me; it was also Micha’s party.

Born just five days after me, Micha made it hard for me to forget this calendric coincidence. After all, she had spent the better part of the past week delightfully reminding me that I was the “older one”. This was a healthy break from her other persistent cue: because I was the one of us with facial hair, I would also be able to grow a goatee, thus solidifying my secondary role as the “evil one”.

So when we were gathered together, out came presents for both of us. I was apparently the easy one to shop for, as everyone gave me comic books. Titles like “Justice League” and “Green Lantern” helped solidify the survive-the-holiday-weekend arsenal I had purchased earlier that day.
Unbeknownst to me, unfolding nearby was the curious saga of Micha and her three birthday gifts from the boys.

The wrapper came off the first present, revealing a plastic dog dish. Quite a curious gift, as she didn’t own a pet of any kind. The box in came in contained no note, no card, and no explanation. She looked at Matt, Dan, and Todd, who were all equally unforthcoming.

Micha ripped open the second present, which contained a can opener. Her eyebrows arched as she sensed the brewing diss. I was on the receiving end of an evil glare that silently said, “Alright, you’re part of this. What the hell’s going on here?” I shrugged helplessly, as I was not included in their evil plan.

It didn’t take long for the last vestiges of Micha’s good humor to dissolve when the third present turned out to be a can of Alpo. Matt, Todd, and Dan were highly amused at this point. Despite—or because us—this, Matt and Micha would hook up just a few months later. It’s my assumption that the highly inane chain of gifts was the horsemeat equivalent of a guy letting a girl know of his crush by being mean to her.

Thankfully we had a knife on hand to cut the upcoming birthday cake — it could be used to also cut the tension hanging in the room. Attempting to reset a birthday steadily going awry, Micha decided it was time to reveal the birthday cake. Beaming with pride, she returned with a foil-covered baking pan containing a cake she had baked herself. Micha removed the foil, held it before me, and wished, “Happy birthday, big brother!”

Her trademark smile faded as she registered the confused looks of those in observance. She looked down. Written in frosting across the cake she was giving me were the curious words, “Happy Birthday Micha!”

Somehow, someway, Micha had baked her own birthday cake.

Micha quickly glared at Nancy, who was doing her best to not furiously crack up. It turns out that earlier, Micha had used Nancy’s kitchen to start baking the cake, but she trusted Nancy to finish decorating the cake while she rushed to work. That is when Nancy took advantage of the opportunity to pull the prank currently in progress.

That so makes up for being the older one.

Later that evening, we were all running around the farm once again, playing grab-ass and celebrating until long after midnight. We were high-school seniors, and I was having the best birthday ever. I felt that such good things would never end. I felt the same about Pam.

I took a moment to pull her around the back of a horse trailer for a private moment. Pressing her back against the trailer wall, I leaned forward and gave her a deep kiss. Then I whispered, “I love you.”

Pam smiled back at me, but didn’t say anything. It wasn’t until the next semester that I realized why.

“Your Town’s a Piece of Shit!”

The Round Rock

My sister Micha lives in Round Rock, an Austin suburb known for downtown shootouts, ballpark shutouts, and corporate output. But the name “Round Rock” had to come from somewhere, and one day I wondered out loud about its origins.

Micha said simply that the name came from a round rock, duh. Does this rock still exist, I asked. Yep, she said. Knowing how much of a histophile I am, Micha asked if I wanted to check out this significant stone.

We hopped in her car and soon got lost down winding roads and twisted back trails. Like a little kid who saved up box tops, sent off for the propeller beanie hat, and couldn’t wait for it to arrive, I kept a keen watch, expecting the rock to pop up at anytime. Visions of El Capitan, Half Dome, and Gibraltar danced in my head.

Soon enough, we stopped on a low bridge crossing Brushy Creek. Micha parked our vehicle and hopped over to the bridge rail. I followed her, scanning my surroundings in excitement.

Dramatically, she gestured east and exclaimed, “Ta-dah!” I didn’t see anything but low water, nearby office buildings, and the buzzing line of cars known as Interstate 35.

“Where is it?” I asked.

“Over there,” she said. All I saw was water, with a small rock peeking out from its surface.

“Behind that rock?”

“No, that is the rock!”

[googlemaps https://maps.google.com/maps?q=Round+Rock,+TX&hl=en&sll=31.168934,-100.076842&sspn=10.049565,18.303223&oq=Round+Rock&t=h&hnear=Round+Rock,+Williamson,+Texas&layer=c&cbll=30.513078,-97.689448&panoid=jEm4dN_v35_BxP7xsFf2Pw&cbp=12,85.65,,0,22.5&ie=UTF8&hq=&ll=30.513078,-97.689448&spn=0.000437,0.000559&z=14&source=embed&output=svembed&w=600&h=350]

It protruded out of the water like a pimple, flying low under the radar. Although I couldn’t argue with the “rock” portion of the name, the “round” part was still open to debate as the stone was more like an egg-shape.

I expected something akin to Enchanted Rock, Alcatraz, or even Plymouth Rock. Instead, before me stood a three-foot inconspicuous chunk of shale that no one would notice had it rained just a few inches the night before. It was completely lacking in the gravitas required of a namesake. I pointed at the rock and said, “What? That little thing?!”

“Yep!” Micha replied.

I paused for a second before barking, “Your town’s a piece of shit!”

Photo credit: Khowaga1 on Flickr

My Twin Sister

Micha and Me 1997
A mid-90s portrait of complete self-unawareness. The decade was not kind to our fashion.
In the summer of 1989, my parents moved across the Metroplex, from tony North Dallas to the rural community of Southlake.

The timing was particularly hard on me. I was fifteen years old, without a driver’s license, in a new area code — the combination of these three factors made hanging out with my old friends entirely unrealistic. It would be months before I could make new ones at my next school. And since my brother had recently graduated from college, he was moving to Houston for his first job.

On the other hand, the move couldn’t have come at a better time. For years, I had been the subject of teasing from other kids, who made fun of me for the scar on my face, the bouncy way I walked, or even my childhood chunkiness. I quickly realized what was blessing I had before me: a blank slate, where I could leave behind that accumulated history of angst and be a different person. I made a conscious decision to make the most of this opportunity, restrain my social awkwardness, and make new and better friends (which I am sure all teenagers wished they could do).

Once the semester began, I became friends early on with a girl named Tara. Along with Tara’s friendship came her circle of friends, so I started meeting new people fairly quickly. Soon enough, I was invited to a birthday party for her friend Michelle.

At her party were a bunch of fellow students I hadn’t yet met. Being a good host, Michelle took me around and introduced me to these fresh faces.

Soon enough I had met everyone, save for the girl in the front room. Although the lights were on, it was hard to make out her face, as it was being smothered by the dude whose lap she was sitting on. Completing the last of her introductions, Michelle pointed at this motley pair and said, “Oh yeah, and that’s Micha.”

I waved hello.

She didn’t wave back. Micha was too busy making out with her boyfriend.

And this was how I met my twin sister.

I grew up in a small family which didn’t have many extended relatives — so for most of my life, my idea of family included just me, my parents, and my older brother Michael. Because of our six-year age difference, my brother went to college when I was still a young teen, leaving me to my own devices at the age of twelve.

I often wished during those quiet years that I had a younger brother or sister to hang out with. It’s not entirey uncommon–in literature or real-life–for one to discover a sibling they’ve never met. It’s a bit more unusual for that person to be a twin, let alone one that’s not even a related by blood. Then again, there was little that was usual about my early relationship with Micha.

I was an artist that filled most of his elective credits with art classes. Micha was a member of the marching band and the star actress in our school’s drama productions. Because we were both creatives, we had a large number of mutual friends. As we got to know one another, we realized that our similarities were errie. Both of us were Saggitarians, born in the same year just five days apart. We lived blocks from one another. Strangers and everyday acquaintances marveled at our physical resemblance, as we looked remarkably alike when together. A mutual love for “Tiny Toons” and “Animaniacs“, along with boisterous, sarcastic senses of humor didn’t hinder our friendship.

When I became involved in same theater productions as Micha, most teachers, administrators, and classmates assumed that because we looked alike, talked alike, acted alike, and were involved in the same school activities, we must be brother and sister. And they treated us like such — for example, if I was sick teachers would ask Micha to bring home to me that day’s homework assignments. The two of us thought it was cute and funny, so we played along with it. After all, I always wanted a little sister. And Micha thought it was cool to have a brother that wasn’t in prison. We got along great, but at the time I wouldn’t say we were close.

Soon enough, high school graduation was upon us, and it was time for the senior class of ’92 to split up for distant colleges unknown. I and most of my friends had been accepted to the University of North Texas, just a few dozen miles away from Southlake. Micha ended up attending Texas Tech University, 300 miles due west in beautiful, scenic Lubbock. She was ambitious enough that she would set out immediately after graduation to attend summer school. Before we separated, the two of us expressed a desire to stay in touch. We exchanged addresses, and over the next couple of years we sent each other letters filled with news of mutual classmates and happenings in our new hometowns.

High school seniors are an amazingly arrogant bunch, largely due to their false sense of immortality. In some ways, it’s refreshing to know that all of us were innocent enough to believe that things would never change, that our lack of tragedy up until that point in life was indicitive of the rest of it. It took just two years to pass after graduation before I was called by an old classmate regarding Jason, one of our fellow classmates.

Jason was a hard-working blue collar dude. His best friend throughout his whole life was a country bumpkin named Derek, who was raised by his father, a single parent. Jason’s own parents had divorced many years before, leaving just him and his mother.

As a result of Derek and Jason’s close friendship, their parents met often and eventually fell in love. They married one another, and the two best friends that acted like siblings were now officially brothers in every sense of the word. Micha and I, although we pretended to be related, were nowhere near as close as the two of them.

After high school, Jason took a full-time job delivering auto parts so he could put himself through night school and achieve his ambition of being an E.M.T. Realizing how hard he was pushing himself, Jason took a little bit of a break between semesters to enjoy a Hawaiian vacation. He didn’t have much time off, so he packed his trip into a handful of days bookended by red-eye flights.

I’m sure he had a good time, although he likely didn’t get much in the way of relaxation. Immediately upon returning, he went back to work. The combination of grueling travel and exhaustion took a deadly toll. While he was driving his delivery truck, he fell asleep at the wheel, veered into oncoming traffic, and was hit head-on by a tractor trailer. He died instantly.

Although I didn’t know Jason very well, the news of his death rattled me. We were the same age, and he was the first member of our senior class to pass away. Around the time, I owed my penpal Micha another letter, and it occurred to me that she might not be aware of what happened to Jason. Instead of the usual randomness and gossip I normally enclosed, this time around my letter was filled with thoughts of emotional numbness and my newfound sense of mortality.

Micha wrote me back, and the silly tone she normally composed with had given away to an seriousness that I hadn’t figured she was capable of expressing. In her letter, I learned that she and Jason were close during middle school, but had drifted apart in high school. She shared stories about him that noone had heard before.

The two of us didn’t write each other much after that. Instead, we spent the time & money to visit, place long-distance phone calls, and catch up more regularly around the holidays. Thanks to a tradgey that didn’t directly involve either one of us, our friendship changed from being pals to best friends more like the brother and sister we pretended to be.

Years later, Micha got engaged to her future husband Jay. Their nuptials would occur in Ft. Worth, just a skip away from our old hometown of Southlake. Knowing she needed a break from both wedding planning and her crazy family, I told Micha to free up a day so I could take her out on the town.

We packed alot of goofing off into that day, visiting our old high school, wasting time at the local Sears Portrait Studio, and consuming our weight in nitrates at the Ballpark in Arlington. Despite all of the fun and bonding, the most important part of the day was a trip we made to Lonesome Dove Cemetery.

I didn’t tell Micha where we were going. But once we arrived, she realized immediately our purpose for being there. It took awhile to find the grave, as it did not yet have a headstone (edit: it does now). Once we found it, along the western border, we sat on opposite sides of a semi-fresh mound of dirt and contemplated the man buried under it, a man named Jason.

It was a strange experience, sitting six feet above someone whose face, laugh, and warmth you can still remember to this day. I felt myself regretting that I didn’t get to know him better when I had the chance. Micha told me some more stories about Jason, including details on his kindness to her in middle school when most kids are prone to warrentless teasing. Her stories flowed for a few moments, then came a pause as the gravity of it all hit us. Once again, we were realizing our mortality.

Micha broke the silence by saying, “You know, the good really do die young.” A pause, then, “Holy shit, Spam, we’re going to live forever!”

If only that were true.

Election Night

2000 Election Night Party in Austin
On November 7, 2000, Election Day, I was at work when my cell phone rang. It was my father calling to see if I had plans to attend George W. Bush’s big election party, which was being held that evening on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol.

At the time, I was employed at the University of Texas-Austin, putting me into close physical proximity to Governor Bush during his presidental run. If all went according to his plan that night, the grounds of the Capitol would be the epicenter of a grand old party.

Rainy Night in Austin 2000The newspaper earlier that day had done a report on the celebration and that it was free to attend, but I hadn’t too much thought into it beyond that. The weather forecast called for a clear cold night with temperatures well below 50 degrees F, so I was hesitating. Dad insisted that I should go, as life would present few other opportunities for a youngster such as myself to be part of history as it occurred. Since the words “historical” and “free admission” are words of equal magic to my soul, I agreed to attend. I called my sister Micha to invite her, that she should dress warmly, and meet me downtown after work.

Micha and I met up and together we walked to the capitol. The winter sun was setting, and the night quickly became chilly. Since I hadn’t anticipated going out that night, the only warm clothing I was wearing was my green University of North Texas light jacket. Thankfully we were moving briskly enough that we didn’t feel cold.

Once we neared downtown, the streets were becoming congested with long queues of people. We noticed that everyone in line was holding some sort of ticket. The nearest person I asked confirmed that they were tickets for admission. I said to him, “The newspaper said this event was free.”

“Yes,” replied the gentleman, “but you still need a ticket.”

Looks like the Austin American-Statesman dropped the ball on that one.

I asked him where he got his ticket, and he said it came courtesy of the local Republican Party office, which was nowhere nearby.

Micha took the initiative and dusted off her feminine powers of cuteness in an attempt to sweet-talk the security guards into sneaking us in. When that tactic failed miserably, I used my masculine powers to ask other people where we might get tickets. After a few tries, I discovered that some people had gotten their tickets at the Federal Building on 8th Street, about three blocks away.

Without hesitation, the two of us rushed over to the Federal Building. We soon arrived at a dark, empty office building whose front door was propped open with a rolled-up Austin Chronicle. We walked inside and encountered a handful of people who told us they found their tickets up in Kay Bailey Hutchinson’s office. Since we couldn’t find a building directory in the sim lobby, Micha and I began a methodical search of the complex one floor at a time. Upstairs in a dark elevator landing illuminated only by emergency exit signs, we found the prize: a plain cardboard box of tickets sitting in the shadows outside of Senator Hutchinson’s Austin office.

Taking a moment to gather our thoughts and breath, Micha said, “You know, it really was a pain in the butt to find these.” I understood where she was going with that. Instead of taking the two tickets that we needed, I grabbed the entire box and we rushed to the State Capitol.

As we reapproach the admission line, we see tons of people milling about in despair because they themselves don’t have tickets. Micha and I each grabbed handfuls of tickets, spread them out in our hands like Japanese fans, and like scalpers yelled, “Tickets!”

We were instantaneously mobbed.

Much like the climatic scene of “Trading Places” when desperate stockbrokers couldn’t get enough of what Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd had that they didn’t, the two of us were surrounded by the ticketless.

Left and right, all we could see were open palms pressing against our personal space, clamoring for our booty.

As Micha and I handed out tickets to people who were lost without admission like I was just moments before, we thought to ourselves, “Now we’re going to heaven!”

The commotion we started with the giveaway attracted the attention of two members of the Austin Police, who were approaching to investigate. Seeing this, we dropped the box, tossed bunches of tickets up in the air, and snuck away. We hopped in line and eventually made our way into the party.

And what a party it was!

To the north was the Texas State Capitol, a magnificent building of Marble Falls pink granite that is unlike any other such building in the United States. This evening, it glowed like an earth-bound moon in the dark November night, thanks to the reflections of camera flashes and camcorder lights. Laser beams and colored beams lazily tracked left and right across its facade. Directly facing the Capitol was a six-story tall grandstand of modern media — little skyboxes each filled with a camera, a light, and an anchorperson, all there to report on what may turn out to be a historical evening.

As we admire the setup and spectacle, I am approached by a middle-aged man who points at my UNT jacket and asks, “Did you go to school in Denton?” I said yes, and he identified himself as Bud Kennedy, a columnist for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, which is published near my old college town. Mr. Kennedy asks if he can interview me, since a former Denton resident living in Austin walking about Dubya’s big party seems like a good story.

First he gathered some information: my name, how old I was, the same information for my sister, etc. “Who did you vote for today?” he asks me. I reply that I voted for Al Gore.

He turns to Micha and asks her the same question. My sister, a lifelong Democrat the whole time I’ve known her, says, “Bush.”

My eyes grow wide and I explain, “What?! You did not!” It was my assumption all along that she would vote for Gore. She’s perturbed by my reaction and says sharply, “Yes, I did!” then proceeds to nail me in the arm with a punch that means, “Mind your own business.”

Mr. Kennedy, obviously curious as to what he started with his simple question, continues the interview. He asks me why I voted for Gore, and I provide a long, detailed answer of the difficulty of that day’s decision, but that I ultimately voted for Gore because of his stances on Social Security, the environment, and his previous record of reducing government waste. My reasonings were very long-winded, nuanced, and sound.

When asked the same question, Micha simply says, “He spoke at my graduation ceremony and seemed like a nice man.” That was it. No exploration of policy, opinion of his competency to hold the most-powerful elective office on the planet. Just that he’s nice. That’s what girls say about dudes they don’t want to date, not people who are given a briefcase of nuclear launch codes.

The floodgates between Micha and I are now fully open, and we begin to loudly argue about the merits of our choices. As the verbal barrages sling back and forth, Mr. Kennedy is documenting everything for his article that publishes the next morning. The next afternoon, I am getting phone calls from my parents that read the Star-Telegram wanting to know what the heck was going on.

After things settled down between us, we made our way into the crowd which was milling about in front of a giant Jumbotron screen. On the TV was a map of the United States, where the states were being shaded red and blue as the polls slowly started to close east to west. From time to time, famous G.O.P. members would flash up on the screen and be greeted by wild applause. In between such appearances were snippets of live CNN broadcasts calling the states based on exit polling. Whenever a state went red, the plaza shook with thunderous yells of approval. Should a state go blue, no amount of amplification on the Jumbotron would allow the broadcast to overcome the cacophonous boos emitted by the audience. Micha and I each cheered and jeered in our own fashion during each of these moments.

Since we were standing and not moving, we began to feel the night’s chill. It was getting cold enough that we felt like leaving soon, but we didn’t want to leave before everything was over and an announcement on the election’s outcome was made. So we waited. And waited. And waited. By the time 12:30am came around and everything was still up in the air in Florida, Micha and I finally decided to leave. “Let’s go home,” we said. “After all, we’ll be able to see who won in the morning.”

How naive we were.

Indecisive Election Night 2000 in Austin

Photo credits: Austin American-Statesman

Social Experimentation

Sims House

In my Austin bachelor days, I wasted much of my time and brain capacity on video games. For awhile, I was into strategy games, and this led to a brief infatuation with The Sims. For me, it was more than just a game. It was a novel way for me to recreate my world in electronic form, populating it with Sims that were based on real people. Little did I know that this innocent pasttime would turn dark (and crispy).

I began by creating a Sim neighborhood from scratch. Then I created a Sim based on myself — a single dude who was unemployed, with fuzzy dark hair and a thing for Libras. Next, I created a Sim based on my then-roommate Joanne and put the two of us in the same house. Soon enough, I had created Sims based on all of my Austin friends, including two pairs of Sims representing my sister Micha, her husband Jay, his best friend Tommy, and his wife April. Like a good diety, I rested, viewed my work and deemed it good. We all lived in one happy Sim world, visited each other’s Sim houses, and generally getting through Sim life without many hiccups.

I spent the occasional hour every now and then playing the game, trying to get my Sims to act like their real-world counterparts. After awhile, I discovered that one could let the game run by itself without interference and that the characters would go about their regular routines with just a slight splash of randomness. So the next day, I woke up, got dressed, fired up the Sims, left it on auto-pilot, and headed off to work.

When I returned home, I discovered that my sister’s Sim was dead, that her house was burned to the ground, and that her husband’s Sim had hooked up with his neighbor’s wife. I was shocked, to say the least. Utilizing the game’s rewind feature to replay the day, I observed the following chain of events:

Micha’s Sim went to the kitchen to make some breakfast. Shortly after firing up the stove, the countertop accidentally caught on fire. Her Sim began to panic, running back and forth as the flames licked the curtains and other appliances. Soon, the whole kitchen was engulfed. Instead of running away or calling 911, Micha’s Sim instead decided to participate by catching on fire herself. The smoke detector went off at this point. With haste, a fireman showed up and shot off his extinguisher. Right when he finished, Micha’s Sim was transmorigified into a sizzling pile of ash.

Her hasband Jay’s Sim came home from work to a gutted house. When he entered the kitchen, he encountered his soulmate’s ashes and broke down crying. Within a few game minutes, Jay’s Sim swept up his wife’s ashes, deposited them in an urn, and placed the container on the fireplace mantle (yep, fireplace). He began to rebuild the house, but the task was difficult because of his habit of breaking down and crying everytime he passed by the remains.

The next game day, his neighbor Tommy’s Sim wife April came over to pay a visit and her respects. Within an afternoon, she was making out with Jay’s Sim, and the pain her felt over his wife’s death faded just as quickly.

In horror, I turned off the game, never to play it again. I also vowed to never speak of that day’s events. For many weeks, I kept the secret to myself. Yet one night, I couldn’t keep it to myself anymore. “Micha, I have a secret,” I began. Then, as if in church confession, I poured forth and told her every horrible detail about my social experiment.

When I was finished, Micha was fine with the whole story. In fact, she said that it didn’t surprise her. “I’m such a crappy cook, it wouldn’t shock me if I did do something like that someday.”

When she retold the story to her husband, he wanted to know if his Sim neighbor’s wife was hot. When told it was the Sim based on his real-life best friend’s wife April, his curiousity dried up. I assume that he immediately retreated to his safe place.

Photo credit: The Sims Social Fansite