Friday, June 7

Somebody Must Have Stepped On A Butterfly (Redux).

(Originally published in July of 2011.)

This essay is about Time Travel. We must first, however, start at the beginning.

I didn’t have many talents as a child, but I did learn to read at an extremely young age. Thanks to the tireless urging of my parents, I remember going into Kindergarten already knowing how to read just about anything. To this day, relatives at family reunions will inevitably remark about how I was reading the local newspaper at age two, or reciting Pro Wrestling magazine articles verbatim before preschool. It’s something I never thought too much about, but I do suppose it’s a nice little achievement. I don’t recall a time where I didn’t know how to read; it was always just one of those things that brought a rotating cavalcade of counselors and ‘gifted class’ invitations to my doorstep back in the 80’s.

One of the first book collections that I ever obsessed over was the Berenstein Bears. Since 1962, over 260 Berenstein Bears books have been published, along with numerous television shows and video games. The Berenstein’s, an anthropomorphic bear family of four, taught me about not talking to strangers, minding my manners, budgeting my allowance and not throwing tantrums in supermarkets. The Berenstein Bears were good people, just trying to raise a family in a hollowed-out tree, just like everyone else.

Now, when I say I obsessed over the Berenstein Bears, I absolutely mean it. I got every book on the day it came out and read every one of them cover-to-cover, sometimes dozens in one night. When insomnia got the best of me, I would stay up all night counting the words in each book, literally disseminating every scrap of literature I could from within the page. The Berenstein Bears became a part of me in a way that not even the authors could have possibly predicted. They were my sanctuary, my confidant, my escape and my anxiety medication. The Berenstein Bears were my second family.

So imagine my brain-melting surprise when I turned on my television last week to see the Berenstain Bears looking back at me.

Berenstain, not Berenstein.

A quick dash to the Internet left me baffled. Apparently, the Berenstain Bears were always the Berenstain Bears; always written that way and always pronounced that way (‘stain,’ not ‘steen’). For the last 25 years, I had been incorrectly attributing a name to what I thought was a family I knew absolutely everything about. After all the books, all the memorization and all the obsessing, how on Earth could I have overlooked the fact that I’ve been reading and saying their name wrong for my entire life?

Surely, this had to be incorrect. I went to the Children’s section of the bookstore. All Berenstain. I traced the lineage of the book series back to 1962. All Berenstain. I even looked at old photographs of me reading the books. All Berenstain. It was like a cognitive blockade. I was wrong, and I had always been wrong, about the true identity of the Berenstain Bears.

I initially felt bad for myself, but only because of my egotism. I was never wrong about these sorts of things. I am always the guy that knows the correct name, pronunciation and spelling of everything. It’s something I take pride in, and a huge pet peeve of mine when I see others lacking it. More than anything, I was left really, really confused. This all seemed...wrong. Like my childhood had changed on me when I briefly had my back turned. Some sort of divine episode of Candid Camera.

Then, something interesting (to only me, perhaps) happened. I started talking to people my age about the Berenstain Bears. I made a point to A) Talk to people that read the books as a kid, but hadn’t really thought about them since, and B) Initially pronounced it ‘Berenstein’ as a way to see if they caught my error right off the bat. I didn’t think it was fair to talk to parents that now saw the books as part of their daily routine and could answer the question with the clear, present logic of an adult. I specifically wanted to see if the collective childhood experience of everyone from my generation was bizarrely shifted for one reason or another.

And you know what? Every single person I talked to was as baffled as I was. They were all certain, so damn certain, that it had always been the Berenstein Bears, even to the point of becoming sort of confused and frightened afterward (they almost always asked for proof). Weirdly, I was not the only one this had happened to.

How does something like this happen? How does a seemingly vivid childhood detail get incorrectly remembered by nearly everyone in the exact same way? Statistically, the odds were astronomical. There had to be some sort of explanation; some way this cosmic hiccup could be explained away.

Time Travel. Hang on tight.

My theory is this. At some point between the years 1986 and 2011, someone traveled back in time and inadvertently altered the timeline of human history so that the Berenstein Bears somehow became the Berenstain Bears. This is why everyone remembers the name incorrectly; it was Berenstein when we were kids, but at some point when we weren’t paying attention, someone went back in time and rippled our life experience ever so slightly. Perhaps other things have changed as well, but this is the only detail we’ve discovered so far.

We all know how the Butterfly Effect works. Someone travels back in time, being mindful to not break anything and alter the future as it’s supposed to play out. However, this person accidentally leaves a toolbox behind in the year 1410. Because of this, 1400’s technology rapidly evolves and advances faster than our known history dictates, so when our time traveler returns to 2011, he finds that the planet is significantly more futuristic than he remembers. Or perhaps when he was in 1410, he sneezed on someone, giving them a virus that no human was immune to in the 15th Century. He then returns to 2011 to find that he’s the last man on Earth, having wiped out the entire species 600 years ago with what we now think of as the common cold.

This is the only explanation I can surmise. At some point in the last 24 years, someone went back in time, spilled some ink on a piece of parchment, and permanently changed the last names of Stan and Jan Berenstain forever. Poof! The books changed, the photographs changed, the very text on every last page changed. The only thing that couldn’t be changed was our memory of how it was before the Incident occurred.

This is the only logical solution. Me being incorrect is unpossible.

The only naysayer to this theory, so far, is the Missus. Every time it comes up (more often when I’m drunk), she gets extremely annoyed, proclaims my memory to be faulty and begs me to just shut up already so we can play Scrabble. She can’t stop the conversation fast enough, and even claims that she ‘always remembered it as Berenstain.’

This leads me to yet another airtight conclusion: My wife was the time traveler in question, futilely covering her tracks as to not be discovered. I have found you out, woman. You may have had a good run working as an intergalactic spy, but you weren’t going to fool me forever, Miss Reptile In Human Skin That Married Me So She Could Suckle My Marrow While I Slept. She thought she could shuttle back and forth through time without anyone noticing, and she did for awhile, but eventually slipped up and depended on the collective apathy of Generation X to doubt their childhood memories and overlook the ole’ Berenstein/Berenstain switcheroo. What she didn’t expect was that her husband, the man closest to her, happened to be a historian of the very book series she forever altered.

The jig is up, Skinwalker. I'm solving this mystery, and I want a divorce.

Thursday, June 6

The Most Realistic Video Game Ever Made (Redux).

(Originally published in July of 2011.)

A few months ago, we finally bought a PS3. This allowed me to play UFC Undisputed 2010, a game that (as a huge MMA fan) I had been itching to get my hands on for quite some time.

True story. I remember being a 12-year old kid, watching UFC IV and thinking to myself, “They should make a UFC video game!” I remember drawing out a ‘blueprint’ on computer paper for what the game would look like; I didn’t get much further than the title screen and character select, but from what I remember, it looked pretty fantastic. Each fighter would have a button-mashing finishing move or submission, there would be a tournament bracket (in those days, you had to fight up to three times in a night), announcers, introductions, the whole nine yards. It would be released on the Sega Genesis to critical acclaim, catapulting the Ultimate Fighting Championship into the mainstream and changing the way video games would be created from that point forward.

As it turned out, I mostly just ripped off Mortal Kombat, but I think I was still way ahead of my time. 15 years later, and UFC Undisputed 2010 looks exactly the way I had envisioned it back in 1994. I am also about to argue that it’s the most realistic video gaming experience I have ever had.

One of the cool things about Undisputed (and most games in general nowadays), is that they turn the reigns over to you when it comes to creating a character from scratch. From skin tone to hair follicles to specific tattoos, you’re now able to literally put yourself into the game. As a kid playing Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!, I fantasized about a game where I was the main character (admittedly, Little Mac looked a lot like me already). These days, it’s the norm.

For the first two hours after turning on Undisputed ’10, I meticulously stressed over every angstrom, nuance and subtle characteristic of my virtual doppelganger. He looked exactly like me in every way. 5’10”. 155 pounds. The palest possible skin setting. The slightest hint of abdominal muscles. Sideburns that compensate for the fact that one of my ears is lower than the other. SimRyan was a work of art.

I was so excited and proud of the creation I had concocted. Not being a hardcore gamer, this was a rare opportunity to see myself immersed in a virtual world, and while I felt like an old man by being blown away by this, I wasn’t about to forget why I bought the game in the first place. SimRyan needed to fight someone, and now. I immediately placed him in a match against 155lb. powerhouse (and one of my favorite fighters) Clay ‘The Carpenter’ Guida, in what I could only assume would be a fight for the ages.

Here’s what I forgot to do.

I was so intensely focused on creating SimRyan as a perfect replicant of myself, that I neglected to go to the screen marked ‘Attributes’ and assign him with, you know, any sort of fighting skills whatsoever. Punching power? Submission defense? Awareness and Speed? Nothing. Zero points. A newborn lamb had more evolutionary mechanics than the clone of myself I just placed in a Mixed Martial Arts throwdown.

I wasn’t aware of this until the bell rang and the fight started, which by then was already too late for poor, defenseless SimRyan. I shambled towards the center of the Octagon like a drunk in a taffy vat, my arms drooped to either side and my feet shuffling like I had just gotten dumped. SimRyan made brief eye contact with his opponent, but because he wasn’t assigned any sort of fighting instincts by yours truly, he simply stood there and greeted his fellow gladiator, woefully oblivious as to what was about to transpire.

Fortunately, it was over quickly. SimRyan threw two of the saddest, limpest-wristed punches in the history of MMA towards Guida’s chest, and was promptly uppercut so hard that he was nearly blasted through the cage of the Octagon. His mouthpiece flew into the audience, blood was everywhere, and the announcers acted like they had just seen the first documented murder in the history of the sport. My guy was apparently so injured that the physicians had to airlift him to the hospital before the official decision was announced. He was nowhere to be seen at the post fight announcement, which I later found out is very atypical unless your CPU happens to be dead.

SimRyan retired from the UFC with a record of 0-1 that night. His whereabouts are currently unknown, but my guess is that he’s in a rehab facility somewhere, feverishly hammering a square peg into a round hole, while nurses shake their heads and silently weep for his future.

It is for these reasons that UFC Undisputed is the most realistic game I have ever played. Not because of the HD graphics, not because of the 5.1 surround sound, and not because of the physics and statistics.

Nope, Undisputed is the most realistic game I’ve ever played because this is exactly what would have happened had it been me in there.