Wednesday, December 18, 2013

let's talk about the Oregon/Amazon Trail.

Today, we’re going to embark on a delightful little blast from the past and talk about the best computer games of all time. I bet you already know what I’m going to say: Oregon Trail and its lesser known but completely awesome sibling Amazon Trail.

Sadly, my first encounter with Oregon Trail was NOT, in fact, in elementary school computer class. I feel like that’s where most kids first play Oregon Trail, but not us. The scene was right for it: we had this big computer lab full of brightly colored iMacs, and we would get to go in there every so often and play games. You could play Number Munchers (BLECH!), write a delightful novel with Storybook Weaver (remember that?), and I’m almost sure there was some sort of game where you destroyed asteroids with lasers. However, Oregon Trail was somehow not part of the repertoire.
Can't imagine why.
Like so much of my pop culture education, my first exposure to Oregon Trail was at my friend Allison’s house. She and her family were always a thousand times more up-to-date than I was. They’d had a computer (with INTERNET! WHOA!) ever since I’d known Allison (starting at age five), while my house didn’t get a computer until I was twelve (and internet was still a few more years off in the distance). So going to Allison’s house was like going to a whole new world full of crazy gadgets that did all sorts of crazy (yet amazing) things. I felt like ET.

Of course, one of the crazy/amazing things we could do on these computers was play games. Allison’s house was well-stocked with computer games, and it was here that I first learned of the glory of the Oregon Trail. Allison also had the Oregon Trail’s lesser known sibling, the Yukon Trail, but everyone knows that the Oregon Trail is far superior.

After I started playing Oregon Trail at Allison’s house, I was hooked. Since we had no computer at our house, I’d have to get my fix elsewhere. That meant it was time to expand my Oregon Trail horizons. I soon discovered (to my great joy) that the Brookings Public Library had Oregon Trail 2. They had this sweet setup where you could sign up for computer time and check out a game to play during that time – one of the many reasons I loved the library. Whenever I had the good fortune to make it to the library (which was whenever I found myself in Brookings – turns out that your parents and grandparents are usually willing to take you to the library when you ask), I’d gather up my newest stack of books and station myself at the computer for a good round of Oregon Trail.
First stop: the store!
You all know the Oregon Trail drill: you gather up your wagon party, buy supplies, and you’re off. You’re bound to encounter calamities along the way: someone dies of dysentery, you drown oxen when you try to ford the river, morale gets so low that your remaining travel companions overturn your leadership, and so on.

All disasters aside, what fun! Not only was Oregon Trail completely awesome, but it was more educational than it led you to believe. Sure, there were maps and historical places along the way with all sorts of informational tidbits. As you traveled through, you could also talk to all the locals and learn all about their experiences – I never did because I had trails to blaze (and I thought they were a tad boring, but that could’ve been just me). But the real education was in those real-life skills (and I use “real-life” loosely because, after all, it’s just a computer game) that you had to figure out along your way. You had better know how many pounds of lard to bring along, and you had to choose the right option when your wagon mate was bitten by a rattlesnake. You had to know when to caulk the wagon and when to pay the bridge toll, and you had better get yourself out to hunt and fish when your food ran low. (Remember the hunting part of the game? It could be MADDENING to sit there and wait for something to cross your path. Plus, I felt bad shooting at some helpless Oregon Trail bear and seeing it crumple to the ground. It’s no wonder I’ve never actually been hunting: I have neither the patience nor the stomach for it – not even in the computer game.) 
In the later editions of the game, you also had to know what kinds of plants were poisonous when you went out to gather them. (And if you accidentally brought home a poisonous plant, you needed to know what you should do to un-poison whatever poor soul had eaten it.)

I always found Oregon Trail to be way more fun when I named my wagon mates after people I knew. I used to name them all after my parents and siblings, but I felt awfully guilty when one (or more) of them (inevitably) died.

On the rare occasion that I made it to the end of the Oregon Trail, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment – even though I had undoubtedly killed off most of my fellow travelers and oxen, lost or broken all my supplies, and was a whole lot worse for the wear myself. All that aside, I was the CHAMPION when I made it through the Oregon Trail in (more or less) one piece. 

While I was never fortunate enough to own Oregon Trail, I did persuade my dad to buy me Amazon Trail. This would’ve been around 1999: I was twelve and in the sixth grade, and we had just gotten our first computer. (I remember it well: it was a black Gateway laptop than ran Windows 98.) Sixth grade was the last year that we were sent home with book orders, and this was the first opportunity I had to buy a computer game (as buying a computer game and having no computer didn’t make a lot of sense). My parents would usually be willing to buy me a book, but this time, I wanted Amazon Trail 3. It was fairly educational, so I felt like I could make a reasonable argument. I went to my dad, and he made me a deal: if I beat him at a hand of blackjack, he’d buy me the game. If I lost, I’d pay for half. I won that hand of blackjack and got Amazon Trail, which remains the only thing I’ve ever won as a result of gambling – but when you consider the only other gambling I’ve done is a scratch card I bought when I was 18, those odds sound a lot better.

Amazon Trail was AWESOME. It was more hands-on than the Oregon Trail I was used to: while in Oregon Trail, you just watched your wagon roll on down the trail, you actually had to steer your canoe down the Amazon.
This is your view for an awful lot of the game.
There were rocks and sandbars to watch out for, so you had to pay a fair amount of attention – otherwise, you’d capsize and lose your stuff/get bitten by a piranha. The stops you made were more interactive, too – you had a list of things that you wanted to collect from the people you met along the way, so it was in your best interest to chat them up.
Sometimes they're famous - see the guy on the left?
He's supposed to be Henry Ford.
(They give you all sorts of weird stuff, and these items come in handy later on as the Amazon Trail is pretty treacherous – at one point, you have to use one of your gifts to poison somebody.)

Like the Oregon Trail, the Amazon Trail had you out finding your own food when your supplies ran low. However, the Amazon Trail took you a few steps further. You not only had to spear your fish (which was awesome), but you had to identify the fish upon catching it. For each different fish you identified, they were checked off in your field guide. The more animals you identified, the more points you got in the end.

The other way to identify animals from your field guide was to make your way into the jungle. There were three jungle scenes that you could stumble upon depending on your location on the river, and each housed different animals. The animals moved and ran/flew around, and your job was to take a picture of them and correctly identify them. This picture would be added to your photo album, and more photos meant more points. Edible plants were similar to the fish: you would gather them while you were in the jungle, and identifying them got you more points.
Just look at all the stuff there is to identify!
Unlike on the Oregon Trail – which led you right along the path –you ran the risk of getting lost on the Amazon Trail. Every now and again, you’d come to a fork in the river, and if you chose the wrong one, there was a good chance that you’d be cannibalized. (You could tell because the background music would switch to something ominous.) Once you learned to recognize the warning music, you’d just turn yourself around. When the music was normal again, you knew that you weren’t going to be eaten… FOR NOW.

It had been many years since I’d played Oregon Trail… until James scored me an old copy of Oregon Trail 5 from Goodwill. Miraculously, it worked on my Windows Vista computer (I know what you’re thinking: Windows Vista? get with the times), and I found that it was a lot less thrilling than it was when I was a kid. I ended up getting a lot angrier at the game than I had before – I yelled at the game when my wagon capsized in the river; I yelled at the game when no one would trade for a box of bullets; I yelled at the game when I died of starvation. Maybe some things are better left in the past.

I remember Amazon Trail as being totally awesome, so I probably shouldn’t tarnish my memories by playing the game again and getting really pissed off at it (which is practically a guarantee). However, now that I’ve written this article, the desire to play it again has become overwhelming. I came THIS CLOSE to buying the game on (where else?) Amazon, but I had to talk myself out of it. After all, chances are pretty good that it won’t work on my computer, and that would be a waste of ten dollars. I’m also pretty sure that my original copy of Amazon Trail 3 is floating around my parents’ house somewhere, so I’ll just have to wait patiently until I can dig through the treasure trove of old computer games.

In the meantime, I’ll subsist on my fond Amazon Trail memories… and if I get really desperate, there’s Oregon Trail 5 to play. If you hear cursing and the phrase “broken wagon wheel,” it’s just me. I’ll get over it.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

top ten Tuesday: songs from the Current.

Remember how I have a serious thing for NPR?

We’re going to delve a little deeper into my love of NPR – specifically, MPR: Minnesota Public Radio. I told you about how I didn’t discover MPR news radio until I moved to South Dakota and spent the first month of my new job driving an hour each way. However, MPR news wasn’t my first rendezvous with the MPR family. It all started with the Current.

I moved to Minneapolis in January 2010: fresh from New Orleans, I had taken a spring semester internship at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. James was finishing up his final semester of school, which meant that he was student teaching. His placement was in Buffalo, MN, so we found a place to live that was approximately halfway between Buffalo and Minneapolis: the friendly suburb of Plymouth. We lived in a teeny studio apartment that was once someone’s garage, but that’s a story for another time.

My morning commute was about twenty minutes – long enough to require radio entertainment. I located the Current on my very first day of commuting, and I don’t think I changed the station during the entire time I lived in the Cities. What I had found was pure gold: a station that played a mix of everything from local musicians to obscure 70s rock to a shameless “No Apologies” segment at 4 o’clock (which could be anything from Meatloaf to N*Sync to Peter Frampton). And what made it even better? It was public radio, so that meant the absence of those obnoxious radio commercials (seriously, why are radio commercials so much more annoying than television commercials?). No commercials + guaranteed to hear David Bowie at least once per day = new favorite radio station.

During the first eight months of my stint in Minneapolis, my time with the Current was limited to whenever I was in the car. However, a promotion at my job meant a move to an office where it was permissible – even encouraged! – to have the radio on all day. It was already set to the Current when I got there, and it remained set to the Current… except for the brief time where a ditzy blonde girl changed it to Top 40 before we all got there in the morning. Not that I have anything against Top 40, but there’s only so much Katy Perry you can stand. We changed the station back as soon as she left the room, and she eventually got the hint and just started listening to Pandora.

That meant that I could have at least eight hours a day of the Current – what joy! During the day, they had all sorts of fun programming: the 930 coffee break where the hosts would suggest a topic and wait for suggestions from the listeners (they’d ask for songs about zombies, or songs that are duets, or songs featuring banjos, etc), the “My Three Songs” segment at noon (where the host would choose a listener-submitted set of three songs submitted), and the aforementioned “No Apologies” track at 4 o’clock – and sure enough, the host never apologized.

Since the Current played pretty much whatever they wanted, I was introduced a whole bunch of brand new (to me) music. During my time with the Current, and I really filled out my iTunes collection. Sure, like all radio stations, the Current did overplay songs, and they placed a great deal of emphasis on local artists that I thought were “meh” at best (I’m looking at YOU, Jeremy Messersmith). On the whole, though, the Current opened up all sorts of musical doors for me. And all without commercials.

My music from the Current has carried me through countless roadtrips, and it’s given me plenty of hipster cred with my friends (which can be good or bad). It was awfully hard to choose my ten favorite songs from the Current, but I did it. My friends, these are the top ten songs introduced to me by the Current.

Mumford and Sons – “The Cave”
I had no idea who Mumford and Sons were until the day that the Current started playing them. “The Cave” was the very first song of theirs that I remember hearing, and it was just one of those songs that I immediately fell in love with. I think I can blame that on the banjo playing. But really, Marcus Mumford (the lead singer) puts so much feeling into his voice when he sings this song (when he sings anything, really), that you can’t help but get angry/sad/hipstery with him. Plus, you can hear his English accent when he sings, which means bonus points. (Side note: I liked Mumford and Sons a whole lot better before I knew what they looked like… especially Marcus Mumford. He looks like Hitler if Hitler had been a greasy hipster. Even so, I can’t help but love them.)

Cloud Cult – “Take Your Medicine”
Cloud Cult is a rare example of a local band that I actually enjoy. Unlike Mumford and Sons – who I would’ve heard eventually, as they are now HUGE – without the Current, I very easily could’ve gone my whole life without hearing Cloud Cult. “Take Your Medicine” is a bit on the angry side, but it’s got some fantastic instrumentation and a very enthusiastic lead singer. No complaints here.

Teddybears featuring Iggy Pop – “Punkrocker”
Iggy Pop is known for all sorts of disgusting things (look up him up on Wikipedia if you’re curious, but you’re not going to hear it from me), but let’s forget about that for a minute and focus on how AWESOME “Punkrocker” is. When you listen to it – especially in your car, as it is about a guy driving down the street – you can’t help but feel like a punk rocker yourself. (Or what I assume a punk rocker feels like. If anyone knows, it’s Iggy Pop.) This song (along with “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “Golden Years”) was one of the three songs I requested as a “My Three Songs” set on my 24th birthday, and wouldn’t you know, Barb Abney (the host) picked me! We were all listening at work, and she not only wished me a happy 24th birthday, but she pronounced my name correctly! NO ONE pronounces my name correctly! Barb Abney totally made my birthday that year – it’s been almost two and a half years, and I’m still happy about it!

Arcade Fire – “Modern Man”
I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of Arcade Fire, as I find them to be generally whiny. However, “Modern Man” is light on the whine and heavy on the catchiness, so it makes the cut. Fun fact: the beat of “Modern Man” lines up almost exactly with how fast I walk. Therefore, it’s an iPod staple.

New Order – “Bizarre Love Triangle”
This song is a fine example of the Current playing a little bit of everything: “Bizarre Love Triangle” isn’t new by any means, but it’s a song from the 80s that I hadn’t heard before. It got me with its catchy electronic beat, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Listen to it and just try to tell me that you don’t want to dance. You won’t be able to resist.

Talking Heads – “Once in a Lifetime”
The Talking Heads are WEIRD – but good weird. They wouldn’t be the same without all the weird. Watch the “Once in a Lifetime” video for a good example. This was actually voted the best music video of all time. I was skeptical at first, but after a couple more watches, it grew on me. Now I can’t listen to “Once in a Lifetime” without picturing David Byrne’s crazy dance.

Temper Trap – “Sweet Disposition”
I feel as though “epic” is an overused word – not because people spend time talking about it in the literary sense (Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey = epics), but because nowadays (yes, I just said nowadays and am suddenly 50 years older), “epic” is synonymous with “awesome.” Example: I watched all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer last week. It was epic. (I didn’t actually do this, but you get the idea.) Anyway, I tend to shy away from using “epic” in everyday speech unless it’s totally necessary. With this song? Totally necessary. The drums and the bass make it epic. Yes, even with the lead singer’s falsetto.

Magnetic Fields – “You Must Be Out of Your Mind”
Stephin Merritt, the lead singer of the Magnetic Fields, has this beautiful deep voice. The song is not too happy – it’s a rebuttal to his ex, who wants him back – but you almost forget while you’re listening to his voice. Throw in some clever lyrics ("you can't go round just saying stuff because it's pretty/and I no longer drink enough to think you're witty") and quirky instrumentation, and we’ve got a winner.

Tapes n Tapes – “Badaboom”
“Badaboom” is one of those songs that you can’t help but turn up. This one never failed to perk me up while I was working on timesheets at my job in Minneapolis – the Current always came through for me during the afternoon slump.

David Bowie – “Golden Years”
Have I mentioned that I love David Bowie? Lucky for me, the Current does too. Hardly a day went by that didn’t include a bit of Bowie on the Current, and you’d hear no complaints from me. While picking a favorite David Bowie song is like picking a favorite child (I’d imagine), if you made me choose, I’d choose “Golden Years.” I’m not too big on assigning slogans to my life, but the first line of the song has been a bit of a motto for me ever since I first heard it: “don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere.”  And you know what? You’ll never hear me say life’s taking me nowhere. 
I don't want to disappoint David Bowie.

There we have it: ten wonderful songs that I first heard on the Current. Since relocating from the cities, I don’t get to listen to the Current as much as I used to – most of my radio listening is done in the car, and unfortunately, a St Paul radio signal is a tad too far to pick up. The Current does stream online, so I just need to get better at remembering to actually stream it. In the meantime, I have all these old favorites to keep me company – and there are way more where these came from. Three cheers for the Current!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

an open letter to Sioux Falls drivers.

Dear Sioux Falls drivers,

Now that the weather has taken a turn for the slippery and snowy, we really need to talk.

Before moving to Sioux Falls, I wasn’t an angry driver. I never got road rage. Sure, I got frustrated when rush hour traffic slowed down to a crawl, but who doesn’t? While driving, I had never experienced all-consuming, soul-crushing fury… until I moved to Sioux Falls.

As a teenager, I drove to Sioux Falls from time to time, but I never really noticed the bad drivers. I was in Sioux Falls for such a short stretch each time that it never registered with me. But let me tell you: when you live here and have to drive around here every day, you notice.

Sioux Falls drivers, the first thing I must ask is this: what is with your aversion to turn signals? I cannot go a single day without seeing at least half a dozen cars turn without signaling. Mind you, this is not a simple “that guy didn’t put on his turn signal when he was turning right and it’s just a minor annoyance” kind of thing (even though I see that all the time. ALL THE TIME). This is more of a “WTF WHY IS THIS DRIVER DRIFTING INTO MY LANE I’M GOING TO DIE” kind of thing. When you Sioux Falls drivers want to change lanes, you tend not to put on your turn signal to show the drivers around you what you’re doing; oh no. You either a.) just start drifting to the other lane and assume that people will move out of the way, or you b.) stop in the middle of the road and sit there until you can get in, leaving other drivers to wonder just what is going on.

And that’s another thing: drifting. Sioux Falls drivers, why do you think it’s ok just to drift in between lanes and through parking lots like you do? Your mirrors are there for a reason, my friends. I can’t count the number of times I’ve almost been run into because somebody was too lazy to check their mirrors to see that there was, in fact, A CAR RIGHT WHERE THEY ARE DRIFTING. My horn gets a lot of good use around here, let me tell you.

Maybe the concept of multiple lanes is what gets to you. You not only drift, but you seem to be totally clueless about merging etiquette. Haven’t you ever heard of zippering? When a lane is ending and must merge with another lane (like an on-ramp to the interstate), you zipper in: every other car, like the teeth of a zipper. It’s not complicated, but it’s not something I have ever seen while driving in Sioux Falls.

Sioux Falls drivers, you also seem not to know how to park your cars like normal people. Exhibit A:
Actual photo from a WalMart parking lot.
I see this over and over and OVER. You also really like to be THAT GUY and block up an entire row of a parking lot because you THOUGHT you saw that lady with the parking spot close to the door get in her car, and you’ll be damned if you lose that parking place to someone else. Never mind that in the time you waited and backed up traffic, you could’ve been parked about five spaces back and been in the store already.

Yes, Sioux Falls drivers, you take your sweet time. Speed limits on roads make little difference to you: if the sign says 35, you’re going to go 27. If you’re in the left turn lane and see a green arrow, you may cruise pokily through the intersection, leaving no time for the drivers behind you to get through… or you may ignore the arrow altogether because you’re not sure what it is.

Look, I realize that if you are South Dakota natives, you probably didn’t have the best driver’s education. I know: mine was terrible, but that’s a story for another time. But it doesn’t take driver’s ed to know that you’re not supposed to be totally oblivious to the drivers around you. And don’t even get me started on bike riders. (Ok, since you asked: don’t ride your bike on Sioux Falls streets, because you WILL get run over.)

Sioux Falls drivers, it’s not just me who feels this way. I’ve talked to all sorts of visitors to Sioux Falls, as well as fellow transplants. We all agree that you have a long way to go. We are all tired of driving around Sioux Falls, having to be hyper-alert because you’re not paying any attention. Plus, I’m sick of screaming expletives at the top of my lungs. Honestly, I’ve lived in three major metropolitan areas: Denver, New Orleans, and Minneapolis. Driving in those places was nowhere near as difficult as driving in Sioux Falls. Drivers in these cities actually check their mirrors, and – miracle of miracles – use their turn signals. I never had any issues with the zipper merge in these cities, nor did I get burning road rage when I drove in them. Honestly, Sioux Falls, if these huge cities can make driving easy, what’s your excuse?

Get it together.