Thursday, July 30, 2009

First Life - you just can't better it

If the bedroom is boring and even the kitchen table has lost its allure, where next for mindless, impromptu - and, if you’re so inclined, anonymous - sex? Perhaps we can ‘out’ our urges...without leaving the house.

Most of us know all we all need to know about internet dating, chat rooms and related online frolics, including ‘strategic life simulation computer communities’ - yup, that’s where I’m headed. The long-established Sims is the obvious choice, but Second Life - Californian cyber behemoth Philip Rosedale’s lovechild, complete with its own, thriving virtual economy and constantly evolving, multi-layered potential - has a slightly hipper mission statement. “Second Life is a global community built on creativity, collaboration, commerce and entertainment,” goes the blurb. “We strive to bridge cultures and welcome diversity. We believe in free expression, compassion and tolerance as the foundation for community in this new world”. Phwooar?

Day One
My ‘First Life’ boyfriend isn’t too happy, for reasons that might be him, anyway. “Please don’t get addicted to it,” he pleads; “I need you to cook”. I try to encourage him to sign up and get his own Avatar (the online version of him) so he can meet me online and we can forget about dinner together, but he doesn’t want to play, so I’m left to explore virtual reality on my ownsome.

For a ‘new world’, the women featured on the ’What is Second Life?’ homepage have a distinctly old world thrust about them: think ‘Heathers’ vintage Winona Ryder meets Joan Jett. But unless I buy myself a clutch of Linden™ dollars - the ‘official’ Second Life currency, named after the Linden Lab, the game’s creator - I have to make do with choosing from the preordained selection of Avatars (the online version of you/me). Hey-ho, clickety-click: five minutes later, my name is Puppy Catnap (ah, cute! ...and just a little bit weird) and she - sorry, I - am a shy looking brunette in a modest polka-dot dress. With her ‘real’ boobs, knee length skirt and shiny hair, I reckon Puppy will be popular with Second Life boys who have tired of women who look like Tina Turner in Mad Max. But two really frustrating hours after registering (downloading the whole kit and caboodle takes absolutely ages), I’m up for nothing more exciting than saying goodnight to Puppy and heading off to my real life bed with my real life boyfriend because my real life eyes are exhausted and my nearly dead computer screen keeps going all wobbly - the result, I fear, of massive memory assault.

Day Two
I can fly! I can teleport myself between tantalising locations such as the post-apocalyptic ‘Wasteland’, Blueberry Hill Dance Hall and Cologne Cathedral! But the trouble is, I don’t know how to do anything when I get there; in fact, I’m not even sure if I appear on anybody’s screen but my own. Fortunately, help is on hand in the form of one Lady Leonardo, who pops up and tells me - via instant messenger (another download) - that ‘she’ is a 53 year old male nurse from Colorado who ‘likes helping obvious newbies’. I’ve found a friend! LL takes me to the Welcome Area; here I learn to walk (albeit like a Thunderbird puppet) and attempt to familiarise myself with pose balls: floating spheres that enable Puppy to sit, stand and walk - almost. But I'm already getting a bit bored with all the clumsy graphics, garish colour schemes, gothic backdrops and stilted conversation. LL, apparently, is bored too; I’m suddenly on my own in cyberspace. But not for much longer.

Enter HangLong, a character who - rather thrillingly for me, but, I would imagine, rather off-putting for some - looks a bit like David Bowie in Labyrinth. HangLong asks me if I’d like to play in the snow. I tell him I’d love to, but I don’t seem to be able to do anything other than walk, sit down or stand up; HangLong, however, is not deterred. “I’ve just paid for a penis”, he tells me - an intriguing opener if ever there was one. But before I can respond (how?), the IM box tells me he’s offline. I decide that I am too - being chatted up by a cartoon man in fancy dress who has to brag about buying his genitals just isn’t sexy.

Day Three
I go shopping, and all the other girls I pass at the mall (browsing clothes, houses, furniture, pets, flowers, fireworks, revolvers and ‘Tenderlove Poses for your Active Avatar’) look like Christina Aguilera. While I’m looking for HangLong’s penis shop, Lady Leonardo makes a brief return to invite me to a pool party. So off I go, and before I know it, Puppy’s standing at the edge of a pool full of nubile, bikini clad babes cavorting with a bunch of topless biker boys, all of whom have impossibly perfect six packs to match impossibly large bulges only just restrained by impossibly tight leather breeches. Feeling ridiculously overdressed, I try to sit down, but my pose ball technique still isn’t quite up to it; I appear to be flat out on the floor, unable to move. “Whazzup wit u?” asks somebody called GiftHorse (Avatar: Alice Cooper circa 1973). “I’m drunk!”, I joke. “We don’t tolerate alcohol abuse around the pool area”, says an anonymous - what? Robot? Administrator? “Actually, I can’t work out how to stand up”, I say “It’s a technical problem”. “Well why donchou come back when you’ve learned to becoz we all think u r very rude”, comes GiftHorse’s helpful response.

Annoyed at myself for feeling rejected, I transport Puppy over to the Kiku Art Gallery in the hope of meeting somebody who can actually spell. Here I get chatting to a variety of people including one AliceBToklas (Avatar: a sparkly witch) who tells me she’s a New York based theatre manager and an online performance poet who, strangely enough, asks me if I’m a journalist. “No, but why do you ask?” I say. “We get loads of journalists visiting Second Life,” he explains; “they’re usually looking for sleazy stories; you can tell because they’re over-friendly and only hang around for a couple of days”. I suddenly feel really guilty; both Alice and the performance poet seem like genuinely nice people - and I feel like a lying, cheating sleazemonger (exactly what, in this instance, I am). So I say my goodbyes and am just about to go offline when a familiar name pops into my box: HangLong has found me hanging out with the culture vultures. “Hey babe, I iz back!”, he declares; “Wanna git ur rox off behind the rox??”. Aware that this is probably the last time I’ll be swapping my first life for this one, I do the following/teleporting thing - and suddenly, we are indeed behind a pile of rocks.

The Climax
As I refused to let HangLong buy me the necessary ‘moves’, he kindly offered ‘to f**k me in the box’ (meaning the instant messenger thingie) instead. As getting down’n’dirty with someone I don’t know, never want to meet and might be a 72/17 year old male/female gaming addict ‘talking’ to me via clumsy, semi-illiterate ‘screen chat’ (probably from an internet cafe, with several first life friends in attendance) is not my idea of fun, I decline as politely as I can. “So give me ur fone number u stoopid bich!!!” HangLong graciously suggests.

Erasing all traces of Second Life from my computer takes far less time than installing it did.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

More Tales from the Larder of Life: This Much I Know

Table manners tell you a lot about what someone is like in bed. If he/she doesn’t share, talks with his/her mouth full or whips out a calculator at bill time, end the date as soon as you come out of the restaurant.

Despite what the ad men are desperate to have us believe, M&S ready meals are indeed just food and it’s unlikely that anybody who wants to be a ‘serious chef’ starts their career at KFC.

Fish and chips cooked to order and eaten on a decked patio next to a lake, the remains fed to a fleet of friendly ducks. The cost: £5. Location: Stafford services, southbound. Who’d have thought it? (they sell Marshfield Bakery cakes, too. If service station food carries on upping the ante, I’m putting Welcome Break on the review schedule.)

The older I get, the less I understand the point of pizza.

No matter how carefully you plan them, picnics rarely live up to Nigella Lawson photoshoot-stylee expectations. Next time the sun is cracking the flags, grab a hand-raised pork pie, a box of fresh salad and a bottle of Fentimans ginger beer from your local deli instead.

Le Creuset cookware is, to the foodie, what Lacroix is to the fashionista. Pyrex, meanwhile, is equivalent to Primark.

When a family member/good friend asks you what you really think of the meal they’ve just cooked (“go on, put your food critic’s hat on - I’m really interested to know what you think”), don’t take them literally.

A sharp knife, a pair of tongs and decent oven gloves form the backbone of any home cook’s indispensable kitchen kit. But there’s no place in any decent kitchen, however, for novelty toast cutters, microwave egg poachers or battery operated ice cream scoops.