Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Gnat and the Headphones of Doom

My favorite humorist/writer is James Lileks, who writes a column called the Backfence for The Minneapolis Star Tribune, and he writes for Newhouse News Service. He has authored several books on US pop culture, such as The Gallery of Regrettable Food and Interior Desecrations.

He also has a fun website, featuring such collections as The Institute of Official Cheer and Bleatophany. Bleatophany is a collection of songs he created on his home computer, often incorporating sound bites from Star Trek episodes. James is one creative individual. He is married to his attorney wife and they have a 4 1/2 year old daughter named Natalie, whom he affectionately calls Gnat.

I go to his website on weekdays to read his weekday feature, called The Bleat. Lately he has taken to calling it the "semi regular sporadic" because deadline pressures are impinging on his time available to write for The Bleat. Often Gnat is the topic of his Bleat entries, and his stories of the joy and love in which he is raising his Gnat are some of the most heartwarming stuff I have read. Today's entry left me nearly breathless with laughter. Below is James' entry for today:
April 13 update: All work, no play, etc: I was sent a sign. In the middle of today’s huge print & edit session the doorbell rang. The dog barked. UPS. A box from Amazon, with all the movies I intend to watch after the book’s done – and Doom 3. I’d promised myself I would play it when the book was done. Well . . .no. Stick to the goals.

But. By the end of the night I’d finished printing everything I could print. Sure, I could work on the last few pages, but I’d been going since the early AM, and the day’s work had included two columns for my day jobs. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to see what the game was like.

I know I’ve mentioned this before, ad nauseum, but one of the moments in gaming I’ll never forget was in ’94, when the first Doom came out. Second level. The warehouse. Flickering lights. Monsters panting in the darkness. If you played the game, you know what I mean. Compared to modern games it’s practically a Muybridge strip, but at the time it was pretty cool, and genuinely unnerving.

Well. This is worse. And by worse I mean better. It’s the same old story, those careless scientists opening up portals to Hell again – will they ever learn? What’s the point? Do they think they can get monopolize the tourist traffic? It’s just like Half-Life, inasmuch as you spent the first part of the game walking deep down into the complex, then something goes Horribly Wrong, and you have to fight your way out. Been there fragged that. What sets it apart are the graphics, the claustrophobic design, the darkness, the audio. Pretty harrowing, if you’re in the mood to be harrowed.

And I was. I turned all the lights off. I put on the headphones. I was down in a dark corridor, hearing the screams of the Marines on the communications systems, the bangs on the wall, the groan of bending metal; I had my shotgun. I stepped towards the stairs, looking up at the shadows swinging on the wall, expecting to see some hellspawn feasting on the entrails of a scientist, when the door opened and out came the zombies. I fell back, crouched, pressed into a recess, waiting, waiting, waiting –

All the while, unbeknownst to me, Gnat had entered my room. She came up behind me and grabbed my headphones and ripped them off my head, and ladies and gentlemen: I jumped 20 feet and cried out the Name of Our Savior with such force that plaster wafted from the beams above.

So is Doom 3 scary?

Why yes. Yes, it is.
James' story brought to mind one of my own from the mid 1970s when I was about thirteen years old. Except the culprit was one of our family cats; his name was Ralph.

Our family home at that time was just south of Battle Creek, Michigan, and it had a furnished basement. It was a combination party room/family room with shag carpeting (red), fake rock paneling (it was the ‘70s), one of those inverted-funnel shaped stand-alone fireplaces, a full bar (black slate Formica) with fridge and sink, comfortable chairs (black, with faux fur covering), a couch (green vinyl), and a television set.

The house did not have air conditioning, and during the summer the basement was a good fifteen degrees cooler than the upstairs. There was a thermal change layer one could feel when reaching the third or fourth step from the bottom of the stairs, a feeling of coolness that first greeted one’s legs when descending the steps. I spent many hours in the summer reclining on the couch in that cool basement watching TV. In addition to the furnished area there was a furnace room with a small workshop. The furnace room/workshop was, of course, unfurnished.

The basement ceiling was one of interlocking tiles, but not the aluminum-frame drop ceiling type. We had to remove a ceiling tile occasionally, getting access to such things such as TV antenna cables and our telephone-wiring junction. My dad had removed one such basement ceiling tile to route an extra telephone line to somewhere inside the house. The tiles were a pain to remove and replace, so dad had left out the tile he had removed because he had not yet completed the job. The absent tile, fatefully, was right above the couch where I laid while watching TV.

Ralph the cat liked to go mousing in the space under the upstairs floor but above the basement ceiling, meaning he was actually walking on top of the interlocking tiles of the basement ceiling—silently and out of sight. He could gain access to the ceiling space via an open ceiling area in the basement workshop by jumping up on stuff piled in the workshop.

So there I was one night, reclining on the couch, watching an intense television program. It was a TV miniseries that aired in 1976 called Sybil, which starred Sally Field as a young woman with multiple personalities. During one particularly intense episode, Sybil was experiencing some kind of flashback. Prominent in that flashback sequence were multiple close-ups of a snarling, hissing cat, filmed through a fisheye lens and looking directly at the camera. It was very intense and quite scary.

I was totally engrossed in that nightmarish cat scene on the TV. My heart was pounding, and…MEOOOROWWW!!! Ralph suddenly stuck his head through that empty tile space above the couch and let out a loud whelp. I think I levitated a full twelve inches off that couch. DANG that cat scared me. He was mousing above the ceiling as I was watching TV. Apparently he heard the cat from the TV, and followed the sound to the open space where the ceiling tile had been removed...directly above me.

James is a far better writer than me, and could have probably written that with a lot more zip. But there you have it.

Here is Ralph, The Scare Cat:

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