Tuesday, December 16, 2008

When life gives you oats...

There is a new game that my wife and I play. It is a delicious bit of decadence, made all the more special that we've made it up ourselves. Late at night, while the world is sleeping, we are busy getting things in place, making sure everything is just so. It is our last thought as we go to sleep, and is the first thing that springs to mind when we awake.

Our game is called "Free Oatmeal." And here is how it woiks.

Right before we go to bed, we prepare oatmeal in our slow cooker. We have a patented recipe that produces perfect oatmeal every single time, which goes as follows:

Step one: Add oats.

Step two: Add water.

Step three: Thunderbirds are GO.

With everything set up, we go to sleep. And the next day?


The oatmeal does not care that we are groggy and semi-coherent. The oatmeal does not judge. Like manna from the gods, it appears from nothing, a salvation to those faithful. Like the loaves and the fishes, it is an abundance: somehow a splash of water and a cup of oats produces a metric frickstack of oatmeal. We eat, and eat, and are replenished. This is no mere breakfast. This is a Christmas Miracle.

Though the rational part of me understands how this process works, my lizard brain is bamboozled into thinking this bounty is conjured up from nothing. I prefer to think of my slow cooker not as an appliance that simply 'slow cooks' something, but as a time capsule, sent rocketing off into space from my dying planet to give hope and succor to a Brand New Day.

"And these raisins! And this cinnamon!"

Though this is a game in the simplest sense (that is, it has rules, and it is fun), it draws its pleasure from an odd place - the experience of contiguity, or "sense of sequence". When we go to sleep, I remove myself, temporarily, from a causal chain. Sequence breaks down, and must be reassembled tomorrow while we reboot. So in the morning while I lie in bed, I begin making a mental list of my daily itinerary.. suddenly, it hits me: There is oatmeal. Waiting. Suddenly, I am a really hoopy frood who knows where his towel is.

At each end, there's a small pleasure in the process. In the morning, it's pleasant to remember. At night, it's pleasant to know you will forget. Have you ever played peek-a-boo with a baby? It never gets old to them - you can do it over, and over, until the kid is worn exhausted from surprise and delight. Their ability to link events in a sequence, their contiguous understanding of the world, hasn't fully formed yet. In transitory terms, it isn't that you "go away and then come back." It's that you're gone, and then you're there. Magic!

In more sophisticated cases, contiguity can involve you directly, rather than remove you from a sense of sequence. Consider a game like Will Wright's "Sim City", where the titular "city" is never stamped upon the earth outright, but rather assembled from a box of actions. First you make a place for people to live, and work, and shop. Then you build a road or two. Then they need electricity, and a plant to produce it. Oh, and don't forget water lines. All right, now let's go over there.. oh, I guess you need a bridge. Let's put some waterfront here, and hey! There's a sailboat! Now let's fix the taxes, and, oh neat, you can build a statue now.

Though every task relates directly to the other micro-managerial decisions you make as you progress, it isn't until you scroll the map right back, to look at your handiwork: the squares zoned, the trees cleared, the ground paved and developed, and: Peek-a-boo! It's a city! Suddenly you're God on the Seventh Day, looking down upon creation.
Then you summon a robotic monster to destroy it with lasers, but you see what I'm getting at here.

In the beginning, Will Wright created the heavens and the earth.

In every case where our sense of causality is disrupted, in our fragmented experience of the scope of things, there is something profoundly anti-Pavlovian at work. When so much of gaming is written off as mere pleasure-pursuit, "ring and bell and salivate" type stuff, the notion of pleasure-deferral - or, in these cases, pleasure displacement - tends to be the exceptions that prove the rule. It's a small proof that there is something in the nature of games, at a fundamental level, that is transformative. Through the familiar and unfamiliar, in seeing things in part and in whole, when we realign and reconfigure, we don't simply change: We create. It's here that we find myth, and miracle.

Also... and I can't stress this enough:

Free. Freaking. Oatmeal.

- Rook


  1. You know what I like... Free Peaches and Cream Oatmeal...

  2. You can do this with millet too and it works just as deliciously and magically. But peaches and cream oatmeal is gross.

    Also all these posts and comments and such are giving me flashbacks to the late 90s and our various Yahoo Clubs.

  3. Of all the Quaker Oats instant oatmeals, peaches and cream was my favorite, with "cinnamon and spice" coming in at a close second.

    Also: I have a great love for nearly all cooked grains. I've recently turned Colleen on to the virtues of cream of wheat, while she in turn has shown me the bounty of 'Red River Cereal', which is essentially like eating a bowl of piping hot roughage in the morning.

    As for further adventures of slow-cookery: My new favorite is 'polenta', which is a fancy European way of saying 'grits'. It's like a savory corn mush.

    Let it be said that I am a man who loves his mush.

    Also also: Yahoo clubs was a tremendous amount of fun. What a strange place the internet was, back before people got good at the internet.

  4. Coleen -is- a VAMPIRE!

  5. Also... the internet is still a strange place, just like the reality it reflects.