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March 16, 2011

Halo, it’s me

Every Tuesday, I go to lunch with my son Ben. We’ve been doing this on and off for most of his 25 years. Back when he was making his mark on Bloom Elementary School, we went to “fun Friday” breakfasts to grease up his frontal lobe and cram for the grueling spelling tests his teachers tormented him with every week. And now, to exact his vengeance, Ben is becoming a teacher himself: He’s wrapping up a Master of Arts in Teaching degree and plans to teach middle school.

(Note to his future students: Revenge is a dish best consumed with a hot breakfast already in your stomach.)

Ben and I both cherish our Tuesday lunches. It’s my chance to catch a quiet moment with him and learn how the youngsters these days are keepin’ it gangsta, and it’s Ben’s chance to score a free lunch. Win-win. Hearing about his life often reminds me that — as much as I enjoy summarizing my discontent — some things seem to have genuinely gotten better in the 27 years since I was his age. For instance, it’s very easy for him to stay in touch with his college friends who’ve scattered to different corners of the globe.

Last week, Ben told me about an interesting conversation he’d had with his friend John in Buffalo. I thought maybe they’d connected via Skype or cell phone, but he said they’d chatted while playing “Halo.” “Halo,” if you aren’t a fan of deep-immersion violence, is a video game in which you try to kill your friends while simultaneously having ongoing, festive Internet voice chats with them. So a conversation might go something like this: “Dude, you going to Bonnaroo?” (Thrilling soundtrack plays sinister string music.) “Mos def, you?” “Yeah, The Black Keys, MMJ, Eminem … (shooting sounds erupt from the Xbox) and you’re dead!”

This bipolar multitasking — male bonding while simultaneously stalking and virtually killing each other — really impresses me. Thanks to the Internet and the talented, deeply disturbed artists who’ve created a futuristic science-fiction game world in which our youngsters can brutally murder each other while chatting about baseball’s spring training or the new Decembrists album, Ben can easily keep his bromance going with John, as well as ones with Kevin, who moved to Colorado, and Robert, who now lives in Austria — or all of them at once.

At lunch, this prompted me to break my own rule against spouting geezerisms like, “When I was your age, we had to pay for long distance phone calls or write letters to keep up with college friends across the country.” Or “When we wanted to murder our friends back in the day, we had to buy a real gun and walk uphill both ways in the snow …” When Ben was younger, these observations made him roll his eyes, but now he seems enchanted to hear of a simpler time, when “cloud” and “halo” were words that might describe angels, not an Internet platform for “first-person shooting.”

Likewise, I’ve come to see his generation’s customs, such as blasting giant scorpions with lasers while handicapping March Madness and debating the relative merits of various proposals to close the achievement gap, as intellectually challenging instead of merely sociopathic. But now, I have an even better reason to embrace this new technology and try to blast holes in faraway loved ones:

Recently, Ben and his wonderful girlfriend Katie let us know that Katie has landed a sweet gig in the Ph.D. program of her dreams — in another state. They’re moving away this summer. As his mom told them, “Just because I’m ecstatically happy for you doesn’t mean I’m not going to cry.”

To which I can only add: If you can’t beat them, join them. And then beat them and shoot them and impale them and firebomb them and slash them and blast them with lasers, while chatting about the Cards and the events in the Middle East and Vonnegut and Steinbeck and global climate change and Massaman curry and camping and teaching, because that is apparently how people keep in touch from across the country nowadays.

So, Benjamin: It’s going to tear out my heart to see you go, but I’m proud and happy for you in your newest adventure. Oh, and you’d better practice up on “Halo” and have your A-game ready this fall, because I am going to totally destroy you during our future Tuesday virtual lunches.