Chatter of the Squirrel – Back

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Wednesday, September 3rd – Your typical gaggle of random American Magic players is… well, how can we put this? I’m not even talking terms of the usual gamer-awkwardness, gamer-hygiene, what-have-you. That’s standard, and you move past it, and then they’re awesome. But in your average Pro Tour six-man team-draft, there are maybe two guys with jobs, and that’s ambitious in the extreme.

“Where the hell is Mike?”

The sun lurks timidly behind the skeleton of a deceased rain cloud, shy like a blushing bride, and sloughs its rays like ballast in the wet heat. To my left, a hundred meters maybe, a swath of virgin jungle as would spur the mind of Conrad, the meat of new adventure, verdant and lush. To my right, a safe suburban enclave, that devoid-of-substance scourge so universally anchoring the ennui of a generation of grunge-rock mallrats. It is as if two tectonic plates housing the opposite poles of civilization were plucked from the topography and made to coexist, locked under the same roof like a reality-TV odd-couple.

Such is Kuala Lumpur: an amoebic sprawl of modernity whose meteoric rise left no time, it seems, for nature to retract her claws and retreat peacefully. As I ponder the sun, the scent of rain, the crossfire of voices battering the air around me, a car drives past blaring Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll” with such thundering exuberance that you’d swear the song debuted yesterday*. And again:

“No, but where the hell is Mike at?”

A motley crew, us. Nik Iskandar, a prominent Malaysian gatherer of Magicks (and a former Scottish National Champion!) had heard I was coming into town, and arranged something of a get-together for me to meet, hang out with, and (as I would learn later) get inducted into the brotherhood of the rather riotous local scene. Along with Rudy La Faber, he had picked me up at the train station, stopped for tea, and rendezvoused with several other of the guys back at the house. We were headed to this party, apparently, but not everyone knew how to get there, so we all were to travel in a pack like geese. But, alas: Mike.

Let me tell you something about Mike, the go-to TO for this region, because although the man is no Steve Port (who is?) there is something of an air of mystery about him. The story goes that in the early nineties he ventured over to the States to ride the crest of the bboy wave, but once the momentum dissipated, penniless and sans-green-card (how do you list “street dancer” under “occupation,” anyway, with a straight face?) he returned, at long last, to the Klang’s muddy banks – to, apparently, sell Magic: The Gathering cards. This guy has a reputation for being the most tenacious trader to ever sleeve a binder. There is no line that cannot be crossed. Look, kiddy, at this shiny Yavimaya Wurm. Oooh, biiiiiiigggg, six whole power and four whole toughness? How is that measly little 0/1, whose name you can’t even pronounce, ever going to stand in the way? Well, let’s be generous. Say you’ve made them 2/3s somehow – it’s a long game, alright, I’ll grant that – even then, it would take two of them to kill this mighty Yavimayan beast! So how about this…you give me those two Goyf-a-whatevers, and you can have yourself a brand new Wurmy friend! How does that sound? Dan lain lain.

And this was the guy we were waiting on.

He was not pointed out to me specifically until I started pointing and laughing at a car stranded on the right side of the road, blinker on, attempting to cross four lanes of traffic into the left turn lane. To put things in perspective, this was a day before Merdeka, one of the biggest celebrations of the year, and to say that traffic was moving as slow as molasses would be to offend the viscosity of that noble substance. And here is this timid little man with his blinker on, leaning forward slightly as if any amount of keener eyesight would eradicate the crushing awareness that for the moment he was stuck.

Needless to say, it was obviously Mike, and he was obviously trying to reune with us.

Get to the party, blah blah, hate squat toilets, blah, food is characteristically delicious, blah, and the chatting starts. I am immediately struck by the fact that around me was a truly awesome bunch of guys.

Let me explain. Your typical gaggle of random American Magic players is… well, how can we put this? I’m not even talking terms of the usual gamer-awkwardness, gamer-hygiene, what-have-you. That’s standard, and you move past it, and then they’re awesome. But in your average Pro Tour six-man team-draft, there are maybe two guys with jobs**, and that’s ambitious in the extreme. Certainly the number of individuals who have dropped out of establishments of higher education is greater than the number whose yearly wages total more dollars than the value of their Magic collections. This is not necessarily a bad thing; I wish, for example, that I myself wasn’t awful at Poker. But I’m just saying. Few American Magicians occupy their time with a task that would prove impressive to a significant other’s mom.

These guys, on the other hand… I knew it was my kind of crowd when a TV ad appeared and someone chimed in, “He made that!” and pointed knowingly to Rudy. Now, I’m an avid fan of the television show “Mad Men,” and I’m relatively knowledgeable about the industry in general, so I know what these guys are generally like. Rudy proceeded to set about confirming basically every stereotype a person could have, much to my jubilation. Infinite-hour days? Check. At least a quarter of that infinity of hours spent “boosting one’s creative process” with a little swig o’whiskey? Absolutely. Mad dashes, slick pitches, sharp quips, and a whole hell of a lot of copy to write – that was the scene. A bubbling cauldron of madness, stress, carnage, creativity, insanity, and an occasional burst of inspiration. And that’s just Rudy. Then we had a lawyer, a banker, a lawyer-turned-banker, and a whole host of assorted Malaysian power-players.

Naturally, with that much drive and talent huddled under one roof, the first subject that springs to mind is, of course, drinking games.

One is just great: elegant in both its simplicity and efficacy. Somebody starts out, says a number. You then proceed in increasing order – one, two, three, etc. – except that whoever would have to say 1) a number with seven in it or 2) a multiple of seven replaces that number with a word chosen at the beginning of the game. You mess up, you drink. This gets the job done faster than you might think, especially when they switch into Malay on the white guy and I have to figure out a quick way to say “sembilan puluh delapan,” only to realize that it is in fact, yes, a multiple of seven in the first place. Fortunately, there was plenty of Johnnie Walker on hand for the task. The second, though, is a game-theory book waiting to be written. You get four guys to extend their right hands and situate themselves into a circle. One person calls out a number, a multiple of five. At that point, simultaneous to the number being called out, everyone either closes their fist or opens their hand, with a closed fist representing zero and an open hand representing five. If the number called out matches the total number in the circle, the person to the right of the “caller-out” takes a drink.

Oh man. Spectator sport.

I’m sure you’re probably asking what all of this has to do with Magic. But every once in awhile such a desperate focus on the game itself misses the point. I’ve unfortunately had to skip out on Chatter for the last couple of weeks, due to a whole host of orientation-related activities in the far corners of the United States. Suffice to say I now know more about Asia that I had ever thought possible, and am keenly aware of the magnanimity of my upcoming year. At the same time, I’m excited – and for all my energy, all my hundred-mile-an-hour extroversion, I strongly mediate emotions, so this is somewhat new to me. My placement with CIJ is exciting, the staff is tremendously competent, and I’m finding it much easier than I had anticipated to get around. I know many of my counterparts in the program are having to adjust to an entirely new role in their host countries, but Gaya (my boss) has crafted a seemingly perfect program for my next several months.

Yet the scariest part is, and has always been, the state of my social networks across this venture into the wild. I don’t just mean “will I make friends?” or “how badly will I miss people?” I am the type of person who thinks through dialogue, who grows through my interaction with others, and at its heart this year is supposed to be a growth experience for me. It’s important to have people close to you when that happens. I have no idea what I’d do if I were simply plopped into the middle of a totally alien place without any mates at all. And yet – Magic has given me not only a person or two, but an entire community, into which to thrust myself headlong. What else could provide this?

There is gloom in this city, with its labyrinthine, sinewy stretches of mall after mall after soulless corporate mall, and its months-long onslaughts of daily rain, so I could see the huzun, the melancholy, trickling down over me as the months progress and routine settles firmly in. But being able to kick all that away at the outset, knowing that there are people to meet and experiences to be had, is truly life-changing in a way that I can barely express. It has been said before, of course – the friends, the community, the et cetera. In fact, I’ve probably been the one who has said it. But transcending the camaraderie, transcending even the impressive internationalism that an entity like Magic alone can uniquely foster, is an anchor, a curious sense of grounding, of certitude, that comes from the knowledge that I could venture basically anywhere and have something in common with somebody. It doesn’t have to be fundamental, it doesn’t have to be some lingering notion of brotherhood or what-have-you. It’s the simple utility of a way of passing time, a means to occupy oneself pleasantly, mechanically, in a way that I’ve done for years and intend to do for many years to come, simultaneously awash in abject foreign-ness and yet curiously at home, simultaneously challenged and comforted, simultaneously living in the present universe of cards, probabilities, and decisions, as well as through the history, etched somewhere in the back of my mind like runes on an ancient monolith, of every single game I’ve ever played.

So when I say I’m “back,” I mean I’m glad to be done with my hiatus, glad to place my smiling mug beneath that two-tone yellow StarCity banner yet again. But part of “back” implies a sense of a return – and in that respect, well, to where? I’m in a place I’ve never been before, in a state of being very different from any other point in my life. There’s no such thing as class, as homework, as some sort of project for which I’ll be receiving a grade. Although I’ve sort of an advantage in that I’ve been working, in some capacity, nearly full-time for the last two or so years, and as such have evaded the most common question asked of me lately, that being “what’s it like to be part of the ::shudder:: real world?” (whatever that means), there is still a solemn truth lurking in the underbelly of that question: things are different now. I owe so much to Magic that, in the midst of a swirling eddy of change, there’s always something constant through which I can make sense of Things.

Next week: something more traditional. Pinkyswears.


* Indeed, the first two artists I heard after I got off the plane were Joan Jett and Rod Stewart. Surreal.

** Two and a half if you count Scheel, because pizza delivery, I mean. Then again, he actually wins money at Magic, so if you’d like I can begin gnawing on my foot now.